Three techniques to improve a child's focus

On a recent park outing, my two-year-old was playing by a puddle near the playground, tossing acorns, rocks and leaves into the water. He was so engrossed in his project—watching which items sink or float, wondering why certain items plopped while others didn’t—that we stayed crouched by the puddle for an hour and a half.

This isn’t the first time, either. When we visit children’s museums, he’s perfectly content staying just a little bit longer at a particular exhibit instead of hopping around every few seconds. Sometimes he’ll play with his door puzzle for 45 minutes straight. And just yesterday, he sat by the bookcase, pulling out books and flipping through them for an hour.

One of the ways we encourage focus is by letting him decide how to play. We often lay out toys and books and allow our toddler to decide what to play with, when, and for how long. We sometimes have a general agenda and even make suggestions (“Let’s finger paint today,”) but still enable him to determine the course of play. He gets to decide that for now he’ll play with his stuffed bunny, and maybe later stack some blocks. We’re also careful not to cram too many commitments in a day so that he has an opportunity to decide what to play. I notice that when he has a choice, he’s more likely to stay interested and hopefully develop a longer attention span.

We also sit in the sidelines and don’t interrupt too often. Imagine you’re at work, concentrating on your assignment when a coworker pops up asking if you could send them the file you worked on yesterday. “Sure,” you reply, stopping your work to look for the file to send. Then five minutes later, another coworker swings by and starts talking about her day. More interruptions. You get the idea.

We let him stay focused. We still ask questions and motivate him along, but there’s no need to hover over every minute of the activity or decide what to do all the time. When my toddler was reading for an hour yesterday, I sat nearby and answered a few of his questions, but generally I gave him time to be alone, even getting up to chop vegetables in the kitchen. Otherwise, he’s pretty good about letting me know when he wants company (and of course he always wants it when I’m busiest!).

And we promote activities and toys challenging enough to ignite effort but not so difficult as to cause frustration. Some toys are too difficult for my toddler that he gets upset and give up. Conversely, easy activities or toys he has already figured out won’t keep him interested for long.

I’m not sure what my toddler learned during that hour and a half at the puddle. Maybe he realized that leaves float while rocks sink. Perhaps he found new ways to play with water that he can try during bath time. Or maybe he just liked looking at the reflection of the trees above him. Whatever he got out of it, he loved every moment, so much so that beeping trucks and yelling kids and even a Mama trying to coerce him to let’s-go-home-already-it’s-getting-cold didn’t deter his focus.

How do you encourage your kids to focus?

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