7 Ways to Help Your Kids Develop Focus
As adults, we often think about focus as sitting down to a task at hand and being fully engrossed in it. Focus does include being alert, as well as coming in and out of an alert state. It also includes directing or “orienting” one’s attention towards certain things in your environment. And it involves sustaining or holding our attention on a certain thing. But focus can actually look a little different than that — especially in young children.
How can we tell that young children are working on focus?
Early on, we can see the beginnings of focus as we watch babies alternate between alert and restful states. As babies grow, they start to be awake and alert for longer stretches, and we can see that they are focusing through what they choose to look at and for how long, followed by the use of other parts of the body like hands and mouths to gather information.
As children grow, they start to use multiple senses and other parts of the body, in addition to eyes and hands, to engage with their environment. Young toddlers start to explore their environments and take on tasks. And as they grow, they may repeat and lengthen the amount of time they spend on a particular task. Worldwide, we see repetitive patterns in children's self-directed play — called behavioral schema — start to appear in their self-directed play, and often these patterns increase their focus.
The more and more kids grow and accumulate interests, knowledge and skills, the more focused and sustained their play becomes. We may see them focusing on longer tasks like building a fairy house, reading or writing stories, or practicing a favorite sport.
What if kids bounce around and never seem to settle?
Young and developing brains are optimized to gain as much new information and have as many new experiences as possible. It is precisely as your kids are bouncing around that they are learning to focus. They need to move in and out of play, to discover their interests, and to experience dysregulation in order to increase their stamina, to learn how to self regulate, and to learn when and how to direct and shift their focus.
How can we support focus?
- Be present. Slow down and be right here, right now. No matter what you are doing, your kids will see you present and focused. Regina Pally, M.D., of the Center for Reflective Parenting, reminds us that “Children learn much more by imitation than they do by instruction.” If you model focus for your kids, you’ll teach them to focus as well. Plus, you’ll likely savor the time spent with kids all the more for being fully present.
- Observe more. Do less. When we can slow down, step back and watch our kids, we can learn about their interests and better notice evidence of their focus. Rather than evaluate a young child’s focus in the moment, look for how often he returns to the same kind of play in the course of an hour, a day or even a week. It’s natural for a young child to come in and out of a given task within a given play session, so noticing patterns across play sessions are a great way to identify focus.
- Feed interests. When children are genuinely interested in an object or play scenario, they are much more likely to enter into, go deep with and sustain their play. This is true for all ages of human. Do they love birds? Are they thrilled to make messes? Do they love to carry things around? The more you can create ways to involve these interests in kids play, the more focusing they can do.
- Wonder often and outloud. As you are walking around, wonder things out loud. Ask questions like, “I wonder how that flower bush smells? What do you think will happen if we dump out all of this sand? Hmm, what is making that sound?” This practice will train kids to maintain a curious and alert state—the basis for attention. It will also likely introduce them to even more interests, giving them even more ways to develop their capacity to focus.
- Let kids lead play. It’s through play that kids develop key skills, and they practice how to focus when they aim and shift their attention during play. If we tell them on what to focus and when, we take away their opportunity to learn how to do this for themselves. It’s as if we are fishing for them for each meal, not teaching them to fish for a lifetime. Give them all the time they need, and let them decide when to start and stop.
Plus, research shows us that when adults direct play, it becomes less elaborate and shorter than when children decide when and how to engage. So, when we take the lead, we not only take away an opportunity, we diminish the value of our kids’ play.
- Be thoughtful about when to chat. Engaging in conversation requires more cognitive load from kids than it does from adults. If a child is focused and engaged in play, consider carefully if and how you want to ask them to listen to or speak with you, so you don’t interrupt their focus. Read more about how.
- Mystery is a great hook. Use hunts, surprises and mystery in your play with kids. They prime our minds to stay alert and continue to focus on the goal at hand—solving the mystery! Try DIY activities like Going on a Bear Hunt, Camo Hunt or Mystery trail Walk with kids you love.
Continue learning by reading more in our series on Focus and Self Control:
- Why We Focus on Focus and Self Control at Tinkergarten
- 6 Ways to Help Your Kids Develop Cognitive Flexibility
- What are Executive Functions and Why Should We All Want to Know?
- More to come: Great tips for developing Working Memory and Inhibitory Control, and ways our kids and adults can be present in a distracting and ever changing world