Monday 9 December 2013

Helping Toddlers Concentrate

In the course of our work at Little Kickers, we frequently come across parents who are concerned about their child’s ability to concentrate (or lack of!). Many parents tell us that prior to starting Little Kickers classes they are concerned that their toddler is “not ready” because they will not listen to instructions and will “do their own thing” and disrupt the class.  These concerns are completely normal - toddlers’ brains work in a different way to those of fully grown adults – a fact which is sometimes hard for parents to grasp!

The fact is that most preschoolers are so interested in their surroundings and exploring the world around them, that sitting in one place for an extended period just doesn’t interest them.  They are notoriously self-directed, and as a result they may choose to sit still for a long time if they are totally engaged in something that really interests them.  However, at the age of 2 – 3, they haven’t developed the physical ability or a strong enough emotional urge to please others to keep them involved once their interest flags, which is something we find refreshing!  The key to getting and retaining their attention is to make whatever activity they are doing fun for them, and to ensure it remains entertaining.

In our experience, it is normal for a toddler to be able to follow basic instructions and communicate their feelings, but it is not normal for every toddler to be able to sit still for extended periods of time or follow specific instructions to complete set tasks.  Your toddler will be required to sit still for a large part of their life and at this early stage they are meant to be active, so this should be encouraged.  Pushing a preschooler to sit still and concentrate for too long will only lead to you, and them, becoming incredibly frustrated.

So how do toddlers typically develop the ability to concentrate?
A typical toddler is constantly on the go, rarely focusing on the same activity for more than a few minutes.  With limited concentration they are happiest when moving quickly from one toy or game to the next.  And with so much energy, they can only focus for a limited time before they are hit by an overwhelming urge to play with something else.  This is completely normal – concentration takes time to develop.
A child’s attention span improves significantly in three distinct ways as he / she matures:
1.  Passive to active – as a baby your child only looked at objects when they came into his / her line of sight.  As a toddler, concentration is more active and controlled.  Now, they start to look around and choose what to look at more closely, rather than just randomly viewing objects directly in front of them.
2.  Unsystematic to systematic searching – unlike a baby, who looks at a toy in a haphazard way – perhaps gazing at one end, then chewing the opposite end, your toddler uses concentration to investigate the object systematically and methodically.  It’s sometimes surprising to parents to see the intensity with which they can study every day household items such as keys or a mobile phone.
3.  Broad to selective – a baby has difficulty filtering out other sources of information.  Your toddler, however, concentrates more selectively – for instance he continues to watch his favourite show on television even though you keep asking him to tidy his toys away!

Are there games / techniques which can be employed to encourage my preschooler to develop concentration skills?
All pre-schoolers are incredibly responsive to fun, so the key to any game you use to promote the development of concentration is that you make it entertaining, and that they enjoy it.  There are a few ways in which you can create an environment that is more conducive to your child developing concentration skills:
-         Minimize distractions.  One of the most common causes of short attention spans in toddlers is the amount of distractions they encounter, so it stands to reason that if you minimize the amount of external distractions they have to contend with when they are trying to concentrate, their attention will be held for longer, so when you do reading or creative play activities with them, try to ensure you do so away from the phone or television.
-         Turn the ringer off on your phone while you and your child enjoy an activity, this way both of you can avoid being distracted and spend quality time enjoying an activity together. 
-         Avoid games and television shows that foster short attention spans such as those with lots of flickering lights or fast moving images.
-         Let him / her practice looking for items.  When shopping ask your toddler to find a nearby item.
-         Encourage listening.  Read a book to your toddler then ask them questions about the storyline.
-         Create a quiet area.  Put a child-sized table and chair for your toddler to sit at when he wants to play in peace
-         Stay on top of mess.  His concentration will benefit from having an organized, uncluttered environment.
-         Respond to his progress.  Begin with short activities and, as his concentration improves, gradually make tasks longer
-         Encourage your child to look at you when you talk to him.  Eye contact reduces distractions, focuses his attention and leads to better understanding
 And why not try these fun games to help your child’s concentration skills?

-         1. Memory games – in order for something to be committed to memory, attention must first be given and held.  This is why memory games help to build focus in young children.  Take a deck of cards and pick three cards from the deck and ask your child to focus and remember them.  Once he says he is ready, take the cards, shuffle the deck and have him find the three cards from before.  If this is too easy, have him put them in the correct order as well.  If it’s too difficult, limit the game to one or two suits.  Coins also work for this game.
-         2.  Hidden object games – Examples of this type of game include  I Spy and Easter egg hunts.  These types of games encourage your child to notice things he or she may otherwise ignore.  It requires concentration and comprehension to discover what he / she is trying to find and children tend to find these types of games very rewarding when they achieve the end goal.
-         3.  Word games – these games not only build attention, but they are also great ways to improve your child’s vocabulary and spelling skills.  Plus, you don’t need any equipment to play these games as they are verbally-based.  Saying one word and having your child rhyme that word is a good example. 
-         4.  Story based games – these games require your child to pay attention to the details of a story.  While reading to a child you can ask a question about something that happened earlier in the tale.  Eventually they should start habitually listening and remembering at story time, especially if you make the game fun.  Another easy game is the “continue the story” game.  You start a story and stop after a paragraph or so, then your child should add on to the story, making sure the story stays vaguely logical.  Then you both alternate adding on to the story until you decide on a conclusion.
-         5.  Puzzles – puzzles are considered great brain exercises because they’re fun and they require focus and patience.  Children with attention problems tend to respond well to them.  Puzzles which appeal to toddlers include picture puzzles and jigsaws.  Whilst puzzles are great concentration building tools, parents should be sure the puzzle they choose is age appropriate or they may cause frustration, resulting in the opposite effect.
With Christmas approaching and friends and relatives asking what toys your preschooler might like, the following pointers will enable them to pick out toys which will appeal to your child, and help hold their attention:

-         1.  Does it have novelty value?  They are more likely to focus on a new toy that they haven’t seen or played with previously
-         2.  Is it colourful?  Toddlers prefer colours (especially bright ones) to black and white, because they are sensitive to specific wavelengths.
-         3.  Does the toy stimulate his curiosity?  Your toddler is naturally inquisitive and likes to explore, so a toy that’s challenging is more likely to grab his / her attention
-         4.  Is there movement?  Your child will be more interested in a toy that has parts that turn and make a noise when they are touched, than one which has no movement

Toddlers are not, in general, good at concentrating.  No child is born with powerful concentration skills, and every child’s ability to concentrate will develop at his / her own pace.  The world is a new and exciting place for your child, and there’s so much they want to see and experience.  The activities and ideas above may help your child improve their concentration skills, but it’s important to remember that the key to active, enthusiastic participation for any pre-schooler is making an activity fun. 

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