Tricks for Focus During Play
Ellen Metrick has been an active participant in the toy industry for 30 years. She has consulted with major toy manufacturers and retailers on toy design and quality; has created systems to research and evaluate toys’ impact on childhood development; and has been a major contributor to numerous publications focusing on creative applications for play products. She currently is a Human Factors Specialist with UL, LLC, providing safety risk assessments on children’s products through the lens of child development. With a background in special education, she has spent her career focused on how toys and play impact development for all children.
- Make sure kids have ample space to play. When children are enjoying whole body activities to help with focus, make sure they have plenty of room to prevent knocking into other people or things.
- Be aware of overstimulation. When children have reached their limit, they may act out. Help them relocate to a quiet, calm place where they can center themselves and regroup.
- Ensure activities are developmentally appropriate. Keep age, abilities, and skill in mind when choosing an activity.
- Supervise. Whether it’s directly or within earshot, children should always know there is an adult nearby to help, if needed.
What child doesn’t like to play? Unfortunately, even during play, children – especially children with attention difficulties, like ADHD, can become distracted and lose that joyful experience of being fully immersed in play, or fail to gain the many other benefits of play. Here are a few tricks to help children focus and make the most of their play time.
Reduce the stimuli in the room. If children have too many options, they can become overstimulated by the sights and sounds around them and end up not enjoying any of it because they flit from one activity to the next. Here are a few ideas to try:
- Remove extra stimuli. Turn off the TV and any music, and introduce toys or activities one at a time.
- Play in a room that is free from clutter, busy walls, and crowded spaces. A simpler space helps children focus on the activity at hand.
- Play in an indoor tent. It can provide a quiet, calm space in which to focus on just the one toy or book that a child brings in.
- Play in a darkened room under direct lamp light. The spotlight provides an area of focus and dims the extraneous stimuli.
- Add white noise. Sometimes adding white noise, like a fan or noise machine, reduces distractions. It can help drown out other stimuli and improve the ability to focus.
Break it up. Whether it’s a board game or an art project, if it is difficult to get through the whole activity in one sitting. Try these tricks:
- Fold the game board in half. Then start to finish, the game time is reduced by half. This helps children experience the satisfaction of completing the game.
- Divide the project into different tasks. For instance, if the child is building a bird house, assembling, sanding, painting, and decorating may be too much for one sitting. Break it up into manageable chunks until the project is completed. This reduces the pressure to do it all at once and avoids feelings of disappointment for having not finished.
“Play is a valuable activity through which children can learn about themselves and others. By putting a little extra thought into how, where, and when children play, we can assist them in reaping its full rewards.”
Fidget and focus. Patiently waiting your turn can be tough. Here are a few ideas to help:
- If a child is having difficulty waiting his turn, a discreet fidget toy in their pocket can help pass the time. Sensorimotor activities like fiddling with small toys can help children self-regulate and stay focused.
- Sitting still during an entire game can be a challenge. To change it up:
- Remove the chairs and play while standing around the table. This allows children to shift their weight and provides their bodies with extra joint compression that assists with attention.
- Substitute traditional chairs with giant therapy/exercise balls. A little movement to maintain balance on the balls helps stimulate both sides of the brain and helps children to focus.
- Place large rubber bands, like therapy bands or elastic strips, around the two front legs of a chair. Children can put their feet on the bands and rock and move. This creates some resistance, helps children receive input from their muscles and joints, and increases serotonin and dopamine in the body, which helps with attention.
- Let them change positions throughout play. It can be difficult to sit still for long periods of time, even when they’re not ready to stop playing. Having children move their bodies into new positions may be just what they need to maintain concentration.
Quiet time activity tips. Quiet time play is important, but sometimes it’s hard for a child to sit still and focus on what’s in front of them. Try expending some extra energy first or adding a bit of sensory fun.
- Do a whole body activity first. This allows children to use all the muscles in their bodies so that when they sit down for quiet time play, they are ready to focus. Jumping on a trampoline and dancing are good options.
- Use Play-Doh, shaving cream, or other messy – yet appealing -- materials to engage their senses. The sensory stimulation from their skin provides input to their brain and can help with concentration.
A few more tidbits…
- Gradually increase the time spent on a particular activity. Work on a puzzle for five minutes one day, and then add a couple more minutes the next day, and again the next. Little by little, as they spend longer periods of time on an activity, their ability to focus on that activity without interruption will be increased.
- Think about the time of day and how that affects a child’s play patterns. Recognize that after school may be an especially challenging time, because children have been sitting for long periods of time in classes throughout the day. A whole body activity, rather than quiet time play, may be the best option.
- If remembering all the steps to a game or activity is difficult, create a “cheat sheet” visual reminder to guide them through their turn.
Play is a valuable activity through which children can learn about themselves and others. By putting a little extra thought into how, where, and when children play, we can assist them in reaping its full rewards.