About Dreams

by Suzanne T. Saldarini
Illustrations by Simeone, Lou
Psychoanalytic Thought for Youth Series
ISBN: 9780984870066 (soft, color)

School-age children are drawn to mysteries – what can be more mysterious than a dream? The importance of this topic for children rests in the tough questions raised by frightening dreams. For example, where do such scary images come from? Will those things really happen? Why do I dream anyway? Inviting readers to explore these issues encourages them to confront and diminish anxiety. Observing connections between events, feelings, decisions and wishes exercises problem-solving skills, affirms the value of internal experience, encourages communication and discourages avoidance and withdrawal.

About Dreams is an invitation: follow Truman’s story and step into the mysterious world of sleeping thought and hidden wishes. Explored more than a hundred years ago by Sigmund Freud, dreams continue to inspire curiosity and research across many disciplines. Dreams are filled with teaching opportunities. A troubling dream prompts problem solving, a frightening dream stirs empathy, and bizarre dreams bring wonder. All of these are welcome skills in classrooms. Still, the strongest argument for bringing dreams to school is the statement this makes to children; our internal worlds are real and important: feelings and fears, wishes, worries, memories and fantasies all matter.

Studying dreams at school may be new territory for you and your students. The suggestions and resources listed below will help you find your way.

1. Begin with your own dreams. For a week or two before working with students give dreams special attention. Discuss them with someone you trust. Try reading them with Freud’s method, which is:

a.   Consider your dream in the context of the previous day’s events, both large and small (especially small – the unconscious mind loves to hide important thoughts in trivia.)

b.   Collect ideas associated with each part of the dream; notice new thoughts and memories as they appear.

c.    Try not to censor your thoughts – let the dream lead where it will.

d.   Note how quickly ideas grow – even dream fragments  are loaded with multiple thoughts, associations, memories and rich visual images unavailable in waking life.

e. Our sleeping minds are able to condense many thoughts into brief “stories” and images.

 2. About Dreams can be offered as a special interest project, or to enrich other activities. You and your students will find links to science, health, art, creative writing and other subjects already part of your curriculum.

3. Encourage students to discuss what we know about Truman and his dream. Can they identify with aspects of his life? Have they had disappointments, scary, unwanted dreams? Conflicts which are hard to resolve? How did Truman deal with angry feelings? With wishes? Can anyone suggest other ways he might cope?  Can we spot symbolic expression in the dream?

4. Sharing Dreams. Children may spontaneously report dreams of their own in the course of discussion. Given the aim we’ve stated – underscoring the importance of each person’s internal life – respectful listening becomes key.  Sharing dreams can be fun, encourage problem-solving, symbolic thinking, and build empathy, but only in an atmosphere of safety and respect.  Ask students to spell out behavior that shows good listening and consideration for others’ thoughts and feelings (or review your own existing ground-rules). How did Dr. Freud listen? Make a safe classroom climate an observable goal.

5. Dreams belong to the dreamer. Dream discussions seem to invite interpretation. While listeners may comment on another’s dream if invited to do so, no one knows more about a dream than its author. Dream experts preface comments about another’s dream with the caveat “.if this were my dream…;” they never say “…your dream means…” That is, they acknowledge that while their ideas may be interesting and even helpful they come from their own imaginations and not from the dreamer.

6. Adjust to students’ comfort level and maturity. Some children will explore most comfortably if discussion centers around Truman, while others will be willing to risk their own dreams. No student should be pressed to share.

7. Themes and content. You and your students will notice themes and content common to many dreams. Flying, appearing without clothes, being frozen in place – are examples. In spite of similarities each dream’s message is unique. Again, a dream’s meaning, like the dream itself, belongs to the dreamer. Unpleasant, even violent dreams are also common; these offer the special challenge of exploring less-known aspects of ourselves. Even the healthiest and nicest among us have feelings and wishes we don’t always welcome.

8. Consider your school communitySchool counselors, enrichment teachers, librarians, nurses, art teachers and others are all in-house experts available in many schools. Can they contribute to a study of dreams?  Give thought to community expectations. Who needs to know about your project? Grade level colleagues, administrators, parents? School cultures vary regarding classroom curriculum content.

9. Goals. Forming goals helps teachers and students focus attention and effort, and points the way to evaluating outcomes. Samples for About Dreams follow.

   Social and Emotional Goals:

1. Increase awareness of internal life, one’s “inside self.”

a)      Record (i.e. write, tell, or draw) a dream, day-dream, fantasy or important memory.

b)      Describe feelings images or wishes associated with these.

2.   Increase willingness to explore uncomfortable feelings.

a)      Describe a dream (day-dream, wish, fantasy or memory) connected to unwanted feelings.

b)      Give names to these reactions.

3. Increase empathy.

a)      Listen respectfully to what others have to say.

b)      Imagine what others are feeling.

   Cognitive Goals:

1. Describe dreams’ beginnings (e.g., events, wishes pushed away, unwanted feelings).

2.   Describe good listening skills (e.g., no making fun, looking at speaker, waiting to speak, etc.).

3.   Differentiate between conscious and unconscious thinking.

10. Advanced Projects. Dreaming is well suited to advanced or small group study.

For example, students might write and conduct a survey of dreaming and dream content, study dreaming across cultures, or explore the biology of sleep and dreams.


Bulkelley, Kelley and Alan Siegel.  Dreamcatching. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1998.

Addressed to parents, this book speaks to everyone who cares for children.  The author discusses dreams stirred by a range of developmental issues (e.g., new siblings, departures for college), provides tips for responding to nightmares, and  adds appendices for teachers.  An active researcher, writer, and frequently cited expert Bulkelley contributes regularly to dream literature.  His work includes closely controlled experimental studies as well as humanistic observations and discussions. 

Freud, Sigmund. On Dreams. New York: Dover Publications, 2001. 

Freud wrote On Dreams soon after publishing his masterful The Interpretation of Dreams.  Although brief it contains the essence of the psychoanalytic theory of dreams.. Teachers who enjoy the challenge of  reading primary sources will be  well rewarded by this little book.

Garfield, Patricia. The Dream Book. Toronto, Ontario: Tundra Books. 2002.

Dr. Garfield, a widely published author of books and research articles on sleep and dreams, writes here for middle grade readers.  She draws on years of experience both as expert and dreamer; she offers practical ideas for improving dream recall, sleeping well, and exploring metaphors and symbols.  The author’s examples are rich and intriguing; still, dreamers must remember that their own associations to dream elements trump experts’ suggestions.

Genesis. 37 – 50.

The dreams, symbols, metaphors and family drama of the Old Testament’s Joseph stories make this compelling reading for dreamers of all ages.  Students drawn to music and stage can check out Frank Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.   A school version of the production is available. (A simple Google search brings lots of information).

Krull, Kathleen.   Sigmund Freud. New York: Viking, 2006.

For the book-worm in your classroom, this student-friendly biography, one of a Giants of Science series, reviews Freud’s life and work.  Although the author’s biases show through here and there (as is often true of biographies), she rightfully places Freud among the “greats.”