At age seven, one of my children chose to take an art class in a summer program. When I came to pick him up he wasn’t there. The teacher said that he wasn’t focused so she had sent him to the secretary’s office (he wasn’t willing to stop painting and listen to a story). As I made my way toward the office I heard my child’s foot steps coming down the stairs and the voice of the secretary saying, “We will see what your mother says.” He skipped toward me happily, “Mum, the art teacher interrupted my painting so I had a great time talking with the secretary. I don’t need this class. I will do my art at home without interruption.”
One of the greatest myths perpetuated by schools and the media is that young children do not have long attention spans. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the last few decades, we have inadvertently crippled the natural concentration of young children through television’s chopped up programming, too many toys that require no creative thinking, and segmented public education. Then we mistakenly call the existing deficit in their ability to concentrate inherent.
In order to observe the actual attention span of a young child, we only need to watch children when free to use their time as they wish, without television, and with no one to design the day for them or break it into rigidly structured segments. They are absorbed in whatever they do for hours and days, forgetting to eat and often refusing to go to sleep!
Have you ever read to your child the same story or page over and over again? Who got tired first – you or the child? If we keep responding to the child’s need for repetition, we will support his innate ability to concentrate on one task. Long attention span is the child’s nature, as long as she pursues her own passions without being interrupted by school bells or by our own agenda for her. Even dinner and bedtime are not holy and can give way to respecting the child’s innate guide.
The following are some of the common robbers of children’s innate ability to focus, and guidelines on how to use these same resources productively:
Child centered home: With best of intentions many parents confuse love and attention with child centeredness. A child who expects life to revolve around her, tends to become demanding and in turn unable to do without constant attention.
Toys that take the initiative out of the child’s hands: Toys as we know them today are new in history. Through history children grew up without toys or with very few hand made ones. Although I am not advocating abandoning all toys, I suggest a dramatic reduction in quantity and a careful selection of quality. Today’s toys are mostly good for the industry – not for the children. To preserve your children’s innate ability to focus and create, minimise toys that prescribe specific activities, and find those which leave lots of room for creation. Think of toys as tools rather than entertainment. Avoid push buttons, ready-made, movie based and trickery items. Instead, have things that leave the actual activity up to the child; plain blocks, plain leggos (not story telling sets), dolls and animals, balls, jumping ropes, art supplies etc. Mostly, let the child build and create with whatever is in the home and the yard; sticks, stones, sand, water, yogurt containers, boxes, torn socks, clothes and blankets. They can make up their own dance; build castles that don’t follow someone else’s story and design, create tents from blankets, and act out their own scenes. In this way, instead of becoming dependent on toys and programmed activities, they learn “I am my best source of joy.”
Even educational toys often fly in the face of education and of self-reliance. “But she loves doing the geography cards,” one mother told me. My response is, “if she really loves it, you need not offer and she will beg for it on her own over and over again.” If she doesn’t, it is not truly her passion. Instead, she may be trying to live up to your expectation and seek approval. Wait for the child to nag you the way she does for lollies, and you will know what her real interests are. Here is a simple clue: If a child is unfocused you can be sure that she is not really interested. She is focused on something else.
Choose puzzles, toys and games carefully so the pictures and ideas don’t ignite more shopping and deprive the child of creating characters and stories. The industry is designed to hook your child on needing the next toy or movie. Choose puzzles of natural views, animals, numbers etc. instead of those with movie figures; get dolls from natural material and without pre dictated names and stories; animals without a TV role. Choose acoustic musical instruments or improvise sound makers that don’t play the song or rhythm for the child.
Art supplies: Even some art supplies have become entertainment and dependency promoting toys. For example, coloring books keep the child more dependent and less creative. Give the child plain paper, clay, and good quality safe colors, and let her create her own shapes. Likewise, if you help her draw, she will come to see herself as incapable and be more dependent on you and on others. Avoid ready made art supplies that do “magic” and become something the child cannot really make on his own. Toys and art that leave the child dependent leaves you the slave of the next trick. In addition, these systems prevent the child from using art to express emotions and thereby heal and relax. A nine year old girl told me that she prefers to follow instructions than to create her own art because it was easier than thinking for herself. Indeed, this child learned to seek instructions rather than invent and pave her own path. Following instructions is fine too, but only as a minor part of the child’s experience.
Books: Many books today have too many pictures, leaving no details to the child’s imagination. Choose books with tasteful, not over dramatized pictures, and stories that nurture sensitivity and require the child’s focus and thought. When stories move fast with lots of big action they can create dependency on fast paced changes. Minimise books that teach concepts of good and bad guys, revenge and tension; look more often for story lines that nurture interest in simple daily experiences, caring, relationships, commitment, friendship and love. The Ugly Duckling hardly has a story line, nor does Winnie the Pooh in its original version. Disney interpretations make TV shows out of some wonderful stories, so stick to the lovely originals. Children develop their focus when listening requires concentration.
Television: TV programmers assume the myth of short attention span, so the camera moves every few seconds even within the same scene. This conditions the brain to need constant changes and not concentrate on anything for too long. In addition, watching even the best of programs deprives a child of active invention, discovery, imagination, and self-directed learning. Because children are generally in such a passive state when watching, television is very successful in nurturing a short attention span and dependency on external ready-made stimulation.
I do not like to hold extreme opinions and so I refrain from suggesting to eliminate TV from the lives of children. However, I did eliminate it with my own children because I found that it was easier not to have it than to discipline ourselves in how much we watch. It was peaceful without this challenge. But, once the youngest of our three was six or so (the oldest thirteen), we did own a TV; we kept it in a closet and brought it out every few months to watch a quality video. These events were special and included the whole family. We made a big fuss about it; early dinner, dessert, setting the living room like a theater, bringing out the TV, and then sitting together as a family to enjoy the show.
We watched in this manner videos of NY Philharmonic, Yo-yo Ma and other musicians. We watched dance companies, national geographic nature videos and select movies. Examples of movies we chose are silent full length Charlie Chaplin movies (which are available on DVD), The Secret Garden (Copola’s 1993), the old original Heidi, It’s a wonderful life, Shrek, Amadeus, and a couple of Woody Allen movies.
If you prefer to include TV in your life you will have to find your own respectful way of balancing the amount and quality your child is exposed to if you want to nurture her attention span. Some of what I see as the worst programs are those made for young children. They are often too fast, patronising, over stimulating and sometimes full of covert violence (bang, smash, boom) and subliminal advertising for toys and candy.
Educational TV: I do not recommend that children learn to read or count by watching TV either. These programs cause the same harm and more; they rob the child of inventing her own method of learning as she did for walking and talking, arguably the most difficult things a human being learns, and they do it alone. Inventing a method is much more important than the end result of reading or counting. It is a tool for life and a step in brain development. Without being the author of her own learning methods, the child skips a major developmental stage. Children who invent their own ways of learning have brains they can trust to do anything and confidence in their own abilities; a major component of intelligence. They also learn faster and with ease because their method naturally fits their personal style. In addition, many of the programs designed for young children are patronising and teach an unnatural “cute” child culture, not to mention the subliminal messages that lead the child to want more gadgets, foods and programs.
Music: Choose acoustic and harmonic music. Classical, ethnic, and children’s songs can be listened to and danced to. Music teaches focus through the ears and the soul. Instead of putting music only in the background, put it at the focus and listen with your child.
Fast paced life: Avoid teaching your children to cram more activity into less time. Do you sometimes interrupt your child’s daydreaming or play and offer an art activity? Music? An educational game? Do you provide sometimes a multi channel life? Multi sensory stimulation trains the mind to be unfocused and dependent. In contrast, doing one thing at a time develops the ability to be present and to love each moment.
Lack of time to ponder: Children expect the amount of stimulation we teach them to expect. Model and provide time to ponder and to do nothing; time to listen to music without doing something else, and time to walk or sit in nature and enjoy silence, beauty and nature’s smells and sounds. Just sit together and gaze out the window, watch the sunset on the beach, the clouds, rain, mist and stars. All the rest is a distraction from real life. Stay focused on the moment and on appreciating the beauty and joy just in front of you. Children are naturally in awe of the moment until we distract them from themselves.
Your child needs your presence and love; she does not need you to supply constant activities even if natural. In fact, the busy work can become a way out of giving full attention. Nurturing a child’s ability to focus and to self-engage is not about letting her be by herself. Make sure her need for affection and connection is fulfilled; be there to listen, to hold or watch even while you are doing something else. It is not a way out of giving love, only a suggestion to trust the child’s ability to create her life with natural and simple resources. Live the moment for it’s own sake. Just breathing is a joy. A child may do different things than you plan for her, but, following her own direction, she will easily focus.