Focused attention, sometimes known as attention regulation, is the ability to shift and focus attention and blocking out extraneous information when needed.
This is a skill that takes a long time to mature. Yes, we can see rudimentary attention focusing babies as young as 4 months, but it isn’t anything like the self-control we have as adults. It is generally thought that self-control is fairly well developed by the age of 5, but the ability to focus attention is not complete at that point. One study even shows that children’s ability to tune out background noise does not reach adult levels until the age of 9 or 10 (1)!
The question is how do children develop this ability to refocus attention? There are many ways kids develop attention regulation, but one of the most natural ways is through unstructured freeplay (2), especially imaginative freeplay and playing outside (3). Research supports this idea, although it’s a little unclear if play leads to better regulation or better regulation leads to children having more imaginative play.
But the idea that play leads to better regulation makes good sense. When children are faced with making decisions in an open situation this stimulates the executive function areas of the brain. Just think about a child trying to build a tower from blocks. The focus to detail and problem solving that goes into that task is perfect practice for attention regulation.
This is why you may hear some experts say that children need to be bored. This is so they can learn to work through scenarios themselves. But, play doesn’t have to be solitary to be beneficial. Children learn so much from imaginary play with adults and with other children.
So, as a parent one of the best things you can do for your young children is to encourage children to create imaginary worlds and participate in many kinds of play, including times when they play independently and have to construct the play world and imagination themselves.
Action Plan for Parents
Here are some tips to encourage both creative and independent play.
1. Start young. Even babies can entertain themselves for a few moments. When this happens, take a step back and enjoy it!
2. Limit passive toys. From an early age limit the kinds of toys that do all of the entertaining for kids, toys with lots of lights, sounds, etc. Instead, focus on open-ended toys that can be played with in many different ways. Blocks, trains, playhouses, play kitchen/food, for example, have endless possibilities for how they can be used and lead to creative and independent play.
3. Play with your child and have set times for them to socialize with others. I’ve noticed that children engage in cooperative play even at younger ages when they play outside together. But inside playdates can be fun too! Especially when kids get into a pretend scenario like playing restaurant or grocery store. You can play with your kids too! Let them direct the scenario and set the scene and watch their creativity fly.
4. Have a set time for independent play.Young children thrive on daily routines. The routine can be very flexible, but having some structure helps to shape their expectations. For example, since my son dropped his nap we have quiet time. It is pretty much at the same time every day so he expects it. During that time he plays on his own in his room. I’ve found that since he has had this time his ability to play on his own has grown and he does it more and more throughout the day. I also noticed that it during these times that he is most creative.This can also work for older children. Having an afternoon or evening that they don’t have any scheduled or structured activities and they can spend that time doing whatever they want to do.
4. Set up open-ended activities. I find this especially important with younger children (2 and 3-year-olds). I find that putting out some playdough and fun materials to go with the playdough or a playset they haven’t seen in awhile will encourage creative play. With younger children sit down and play with them for a few minutes first and then step back and let them play on their own. This is still relevant for older children (4 & 5-year-olds) and is great to stimulate their play, but I do think with older children that not all play should be set up. I want them to see what they can create on their own.
5. Play with them first thing. I find that playing and connecting with my son early on in the day leads to more independent play later in the day.This helps fill up his need for attention and he’s more willing to play on his own as the day goes on. This might be something that depends on the child, but it is something that has worked for us. If you find your child is constantly saying “play with me” then put off everything and do that first thing and then step back and put away the breakfast dishes and so on.
Developing focused attention is a really important skill and early childhood is a sensitive period for its development. When thinking about your children’s play, think less about what would entertain them and more about what would enable them to create.