Being able to focus on a single task can be quite easy as one gets older. But for young children, focused learning can take effort.
According to the Summit Medical Group, a normal attention span is three to five minutes per year of a child’s age. With such a short time to receive and retain information, becoming imaginative may be the way to go.
Amy Fredricks, a co-lead outdoor pre-primary teacher at Laurel School in Shaker Heights; Kristin Kuhn, early childhood director at Hathaway Brown School in Shaker Heights; and Rivky Wolf, early childhood administrator at Hebrew Academy of Cleveland in Cleveland Heights, said their schools place importance on helping children maintain focus.
At Hebrew Academy’s preschool, the idea children have different ways of learning is a big part of the program, Wolf said.
“Some learn best by hearing, some by observing and some children will learn best by experimenting,” she stated. “Studies have shown that young children will learn best and retain what they are acquiring by engaging and doing, like hands-on activities.”
As teachers write their lesson plans, the different learning types are kept in mind. Teachers then prepare activities that involve all five senses with a variety of learning modalities, Wolf said.
“When children listen to their teacher’s voice while seeing pictures or real objects, or as they touch and manipulate an item, which they can sometimes smell or taste, it keeps them engaged in the activity and helps them perceive and comprehend what they are learning,” she explained.
For Hathaway Brown students, teachers give them opportunities to learn through play and exploration to retain their focus. By designing learning spaces that engage children with a variety of materials, children can choose what is interesting to them, Kuhn explained.
“We are a program that also uses ‘open-ended’ materials,” she said. “Instead of providing students a basket of dress-up clothes, we present them with a pile of colorful scarves that one day can be used for superhero capes and the next for a fort.”
Kuhn stated engaged and focused learning lies in differentiated lessons.
“No day is the same for the students and no year is the same for our teachers,” she said. “New curriculum is engaging to both the student and teacher. Projects unfold based on the child’s interest or their desire to learn more around a topic. They share what they know, what they want to know and as the project runs its course, they share what they learned.”
It’s easiest to keep a child’s attention during nature play, Fredricks noted. At Laurel School, she said teachers understand learning happens differently and tapping into those different learning styles naturally happens outside.
“Some children are super interested in insects, and we might have others who are interested in transportation,” she explained. “Nature is patient. When you teach children how to take a few breaths and when we stop, nature keeps going. You have to slow children down first. We are only one animal on earth and we’re not the only one.”
Along retaining focus, Fredricks said students also learn empathy and patience.
“Children tend to be intrinsically motivated by why or how things happen and that is where the learning happens,” she noted. “They come up with their own questions. One of the things we do well here is celebrating that play is learning. So, we give the children time and space to play and learn.”
But teachers aren’t the only ones who have a role in helping engage students, the professionals said. Parents can also do a few things at home to work on their child’s attention span.
“Sleep is one of the best things to make sure your child can be engaged during the day,” Kuhn explained. “We also encourage our parents to play with their children. Often as adults, we forget how to play and we manage a child’s play as opposed to engaging with them during their play.”
Parents should engage with teachers to work on attention spans.
“It is extremely important that parents communicate with the teacher and form a united plan of helping the child to increase his attention span,” Wolf said. “When we send home weekly newsletters, we describe in detail the many ways we engage our children to attract and keep their attention, and we encourage parents to do the same at home.”
At the end of the day, parents need to just let their children explore.
“I am also a fan of boredom. When parents give children time and space, they are naturally very creative,” Fredricks noted. "Try to provide them blank paper, colored paper, scissors, tape. It’s about doing open-ended activities as well as a little bit of encouragement.”