Remember nap time? We had these little rugs that our teachers would put on the floor of our classroom, they would dim the lights and we would all nap. Sometimes they would put on quiet music to lull us to sleep. Ahhh…those were the days. Then we moved on to grade one for a full school day and we got a (much appreciated) milk break and recess (hardly restful). Being the social misfit that I am/was (oops..) my enjoyment of recess ranged from loving it to being petrified because some girl (who was WAY more, mmmm shall we say – mature – than the rest of us) would make the rest of our lives miserable. In the end, I must admit that the social torture quickly taught us to learn to get along and to build friendships.
Any way – back to nap time… those kindergarten teachers are onto something! Ever noticed how children go through periods when they seem to sleep or eat constantly? This is due to the tremendous development that is going on in all of their body systems.
Growth curves developed by J.M. Tanner (1962) demonstrate the rapid growth and development that is occurring throughout childhood. The most dramatic and rapidly developing systems are the lymphatic, nervous, and reproductive systems. Of course we are able to observe the skeletal growth which occurs at a much more gradual and consistent pace, for now we will focus on the more ‘invisible’ systems. In general, between birth and the age of 8-10 years the nervous system develops at a rapid pace, building and maximizing those all important neural connections, and reaches a plateau for the remainder of adolescence. In contrast the reproductive system (hello – hormones!) stays at a fairly low plateau throughout the early years, and then demonstrates an amazingly rapid increase in growth around the age of 10, which again plateaus between the ages of 16-18 years.
These dramatic growth periods explain the physiological need for rest – our bodies voluntarily need extended cat naps so that more energy can be spent on the growth and development of our systems. Those of you who are parents can probably confirm that just before your child hits a growth spurt, they eat like they have never, ever been fed before! (my mom used to say we each (my siblings and I) had a wooden leg that we were trying to fill with food…come to think of it, I still do that!). Again, that impulse is the body preparing for the upcoming growth spurt. And then, when that growth spurt hits – its like they have never slept before, using up the energy reserves taken in during that intensive ‘feeding’ period to then grow body systems. This is exceptionally evident during those teenage years. Isn’t that cool? All of this happens voluntarily – our body just knows what to do.
Interestingly, in adulthood our bodies still need rest. Our muscles still require time to be at rest, our minds need time to be at rest, and in fact all of our systems require rest. Rest allows our immune systems to ward off germs and stress more efficiently, our minds to function more precisely, and our muscles to rest and strengthen. When we do not get enough rest, our bodies begin to function inefficiently and are not able to cope with stress, viruses, illness, workouts, etc. effectively.
The development of the reproductive and nervous systems is of great interest to me as a ballet teacher and, I believe, has changed my approach to the early years and adolescent age groups. But I’ll save that for the next post – its nap time now.
 Tanner, J.M. (1962) Foetus into Man. It needs to be said that this article and Tanner’s growth curves are still considered to be relevant today.