by Meghan Fitzgerald
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?
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.
Continue learning by reading more in our series on Focus and Self Control: