Improving Children's Attention Spans Through Play

Last updated: 04-25-2021

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Improving Children's Attention Spans Through Play

In this episode of The Preschool Podcast, we chat with Prerna Richards, CEO & Founder of Together We Grow on children’s attention spans and how educators and parents can foster learning and regulated attention through intentional play.

Prerna begins this episode by discussing the ever growing trend of children becoming mislabelled and misdiagnosed with attention deficit disorders and the importance parents and educators play during the first few years of a child’s life in order to build strong pathways. Prerna states if we were more intentional in the early childhood years the diagnosis would be reduced.

Attention and focus is a muscle. Prerna says that we need strengthen this muscle in order to pay attention and absorb the learning to remember the learning and to be focused. This past year has been challenging for everyone, and we haven’t had many opportunities to strengthen this muscle with Zoom and virtual learning. When we go through unprecedented stress, and when adults are stressed and impatient, then children become stressed and impatient. They’re sponges and soak up how we feel and how we behave as adults. This can show up as pushbacks and less than ideal behaviors from kids.

Attention and focus is one of the executive function skills like self-contol, self-regulation, and critical thinking. It’s getting wired in the prefrontal cortex and if we don’t allow for opportunities for pathways to be strong and engrained, then children will have fragmented attention meaning they won’t be able to focus on anything, become distracted easily, and will be feeling restless inside.

Want to work with Prerna and learn more about Together We Grown’s services? Connect with her on Instagram, LinkedIn or Facebook.

We have to look at our field as a business. We do it from our heart but it is a business and we need to run it like a business. Whether it’s a small business, a big business, the mentality has to be, “What is our mission vision? What are we trying to achieve and be successful? How are we tracking it?”

Prerna, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!

Hi, Ron. I’m so happy to be here!

We’re so happy to have you. For all of our listeners out there, we have on the show with us today Prerna Richards. She is the CEO and founder of Together We Grow. Great to have you on the show, Prerna. And let’s start off, as we always do, learning a bit about you and what got you started with your company, Together We Grow.

Thank you; thank you for the invitation. I am originally from India. And when I was in India, I hated education. Like, it’s not fun being in school in India. So, I did not think I would be in this field right now. And my original degree from India was interior design. My husband’s an architect and the plan was that we would work together – and thank God that didn’t happen.

So, he’s from Scotland. We ended up in Scotland after we got married. And once the girls were born, I became so interested in learning more about early-childhood [education], started taking nursery classes and I had found my passion.

Then we moved to Hawaii. And when we were in Hawaii, that was when I first started taking early childhood courses. And I could not stop – I just could not stop taking the classes, could not stop learning. And fast forward, I got my bachelors in child development and then I have my MBA focus on early childhood.

And here we are, 35 years, fast-forward. And during that time I have been in all kinds of roles: teacher, director, education specialist, vice president of a division. But most recently I started my own consulting business two-and-a-half years ago, called Together We Grow. And Together We Grow was created for three things: professional development, consulting and coaching.

And I wanted to make sure that when I do professional development, it is research-based; its neuroscience-based. I didn’t want to just get up and just take up space. I wanted to contribute. How does the brain actually develop? How can we support young, developing brains?

So, in the two-and-a-half years, I have had [the] absolute privilege of doing all three on a consistent basis. But since COVID [19] the coaching for families, individual families, has also taken away, taken off and accelerated because of the need. And I’m also a mom of two and a grandmother of three. That’s it!

That’s exciting! And tell me a bit more, I’m curious: what drew you into early-childhood education? You said with your girls and you couldn’t get enough of the learning. What was it, do you think, that was really drawing you in?

If I had to pick, I think it was the fascination of learning more about the behaviors, the brain. And not having an interest in India, when I was actually in school, I found it fascinating that when you teach hands-on, when you engage the brain, it is so fun to learn more things. And I think I’m a learner at heart, but it had to be in the right way. Like, the medium had to be right to engage my brain. I think I’m still like a child, in my brain. I need hands on; I need to be engaged with it. I can’t be a passive learner.

Cool, yeah, because I what I always find so fascinating about early-childhood education is just frankly how little we know about how the brain develops at that age and how much more there is to learn. So, it’s pretty fascinating, for sure.

And the more we learn, the more fascinated we become, don’t you think? It’s like, “Really? That happens?”

Yeah, totally. It’s one of those things where the more you learn, the more questions you have. And definitely early childhood is one of those. And did you say you also study for an MBA?

I have an MBA, this is true.

Cool. I’m curious about that, actually, because something we touch on, on the Podcast, every once in a while, which is bringing external perspectives or perspectives that are different from early-childhood education. So on that, what do you think having sort of a business administration perspective brings for you being able to help support and contribute to the field of early-childhood education?

Yeah, so it’s a unique combination. You won’t find so many people with [an] education-slash-business background. And I think it really has been very helpful when I’ve been consulting as a business coach for owners and directors because I can actually talk about marketing and budgets and H.R. [human resources] and all of the good stuff.

Because we have to look at our field as a business. We do it from our heart but it is a business and we need to run it like a business. Whether it’s a small business, a big business, the mentality has to be, “What is our mission vision? What are we trying to achieve and are we successful? How are we tracking it?” So yeah, I think we have to have that mentality that is not just a passion. I’m not just, “I just don’t love kids, so I should take care of them.”

Yeah, I’m really passionate about social enterprise. And so I wanted to make sure I snuck in that question because that’s really important. Okay, and we wanted to talk to you today about focus and attention in our youngest children. What are some of the trends that you’re seeing with young children and their attention spans over time?

I would say in general, children are born capable and intelligent. And if we create the right environment, we can help them to live their full potential. And attention and focus is something that doesn’t get enough attention, which sounds funny to say. But we don’t do it intentionally.

And so over the past few years – I would say the past maybe five, six, seven, eight years – it’s becoming more and more children lack attention and then they get labeled and they get diagnosed. Very quick, diagnoses are happening – ADHD and ADD – and we’re using these diagnoses too frequently, I feel like.

And I also believe that if we were more intentional in the early childhood years, the diagnoses would be reduced because quite frankly, attention and focus is like a muscle. So, we strengthen our own muscle but we’ve got to strengthen the brain part that has this capacity to pay attention, to absorb the learning, to remember the learning and to be focused.

And so in this last year, I know things have changed a lot, and so all the Zooming [online video conferencing] and virtual [education] hasn’t helped the children’s attention because children were never designed to learn through platforms. But I have to say, I am really impressed with the early childhood field, how they’ve stepped up to the space and contributed.

But when we go through unprecedented stress, right – so, which is what we’re all living through and coming [through] – when the adults are stressed out and impatient, it translates into children because when you want children to pay attention and be focused, it takes patience. And when you’re under stress, patience is the first thing to go.

So, we become impatient, they become impatient, and it shows up in pushbacks, behaviors, not listening, not following directions, not being able to follow one-step direction or two-step direction because they’ve tuned you out and they’re not paying attention, which again leads to more stress from the adults, teachers or parents – it doesn’t matter – and the cycle continues.

Also, I think we need to remember that attention and focus is one of the executive function skills. So, along with self-control or self-regulation or critical thinking, attention and focus is right up there, which is getting wired in the prefrontal cortex.

And if we don’t allow opportunities for this pathway to be strong, the children are not going to have strong attention. They’re going to have fragmented attention. And by “fragmented attention” I mean, they just can’t focus on anything. They can’t stick to something. They get distracted, which also actually leads to feeling restless inside. Nothing can settle you. You’re jumping from one activity to the next or you just don’t engage in it enough and you just keep moving. We’ve all seen those children who wander the classroom or at home. So, yeah, I mean, I’m definitely seeing a trend of something that we need to pay attention to.

Yeah, it’s interesting because it makes so much sense. But even on the Preschool Podcast, it’s not something we’ve talked about a lot. I know it’s come up a few times and we’ve had some conversations around that area but not specifically on focus and attention, and it’s such a huge thing. And even we see what our children, we see them with their early-childhood educator and are so impressed with how much focus and attention they have with her versus with us at home.

So, that leads me to my next question, which is partially a selfish one, which is, what are some of the things that we can do to help with our children’s attention and build that muscle, as you say, at home or [for] educators in the field, as well?

So, that’s a really good point that, yes, children kind of figure out very quickly that they have to listen to their teachers and follow directions and maybe parents can be optional listening. But I think the place that I would start is really by recognizing the importance of the early years, right?

So if we are talking about the brain – and attention and focus happens to be in the brain, which happens to be absolutely a passion area of me, my space in early childhood, if you like. So, if you think about the early years and if 90% of the brain is getting wired by birth to [age] five, the more intentional we are in the earlier years and recognizing that we have to create pathways.

So, maybe somebody doesn’t know about pathways, so maybe I’ll explain it. And maybe some people know about pathways – that’ll be a refresher for them. So, pretend you’re walking on the beach – because right now we would love to be walking on the beach – and you’re walking on the beach and you’re walking on dry sand. What do you leave behind you?

Right. And the waves come. What happens to your footprints?

They get washed away.

Right. Now, pretend you’re walking in wet sand. What’s going to happen to your footprints now?

I don’t know, I guess they stick in the sand a bit longer?

That’s right, that’s right. That’s exactly what happens. And if you keep walking on wet sand, it goes deeper and deeper. This is exactly what happens in the brain. When the pathway’s getting created, you have to use that pathway again and again to strengthen it, to make it stronger, to make it linked. The neurons make connections when there’s a pathway there.

And so how can you do that, is the key. And this is why birth to five is so critical for intentionally developing this muscle and this base of pathways. So, one of the things that you do is be intentional. And what does that mean? Like, everybody uses this word “intentional”.

But children learn through play. We know this. So, if we are more intentional with the types of toys we’re choosing for them, types of activities we are providing for them, types of exploration we are providing for them, it’s going to help them to strengthen that muscle quite naturally, right?

So, what would be the best toys that might support this? The best toys are that the more passive a toy is, the more active the child is. I think we all know this, right? No battery toys, no cause-and-effect toys that, “If I push this, this happens,” because then the child isn’t doing anything with it.

So, when we allow them toys such as blocks and Legos [building pieces], when you’re building with Legos that is full-on paying attention. You’ve got to get the right peg into the right hole. That is attention in action. So, think of it like that, that the more opportunities we can have for hand-eye coordination, the more opportunities we can have for the muscle in our index finger and the thumb.

Because I don’t know if you know this, Ron, or not, but there is a nerve that goes from our index finger and our thumb all the way up our arm and all the way directly above our eyebrows, right in our forehead. It’s like a nerve that runs from our hand to our head. And when we use our pincher muscles – our index and our thumb – we activate this part of the brain. And guess what? That is exactly where the attention and focus is getting stronger pathways. So, it’s absolutely fascinating to me. Isn’t that cool?

Very. Yeah, I started, like, pinching my fingers together.

Yeah, see? You wouldn’t get that if you were on a device, would you? You wouldn’t activate your pincher muscles if you were on a device.

Yeah, and it’s funny because the thing about the toys… because, in a way it’s almost not intuitive initially to think that a toy that does more is going to result in less attention and focus from the child. Because you kind of think there’s more going on, therefore there’s more things for them to do and focus on.

Oh, so that’s a really good point that you bring up: there’s more going on. So, when a toy is making a noise, when a toy is whirling that color, the brain is actually not engaged. It’s passive. It is absolutely just like a wash, it’s just getting washed over it. So, it’s like mesmerizing. It’s just not having any grip. There’s nothing for the brain to grip with it.

The toys that make the children grip are toys like fine motor – so, we talked about the pincher – lots of play dough; lots of clay; lots of giving them little towels and playing with water and squeezing out the towels because you’re strengthening your finger muscles; letting them have self-help skills – “Do your buttons, do your zips,” stuff that they need to use their hands. Because the more they use their hands, the more the blood rushes to the brain and the more pathways get created and the more experiences that the children have.

Giving them puzzles, giving them… the best toys on Earth are dirt, mud and water, right? That is the best, just the perfect opportunity to explore. But the other thing that happens with these kind of open-ended toys – or loose parts, as they’re famously called now. Loose parts is anything in your house: measuring cups is a loose part; buttons are a loose part, whatever that the child takes in their hand and the toy comes to life are the best toys to give to children in their young ages.

Why? Because children have to problem-solve; children have to explore; children have to experience. And that is exactly what executive function skills are. And the more the children do that, the more they pay attention, the more focused they are because they’re enjoying it, because they’re exploring it, because they’re curious and because they are leading the play.

Yeah, it’s interesting because, even anecdotally with my kids, I can kind of see that. So, basically the more the toy does, the less time they’ll spend with it. So, my three-year-old will spend quite a bit of time and be pretty focused on puzzles and playing with his animals and dinosaurs that don’t do anything – like, they’re not electronic or anything. But there’s some other toys that are electronic and he doesn’t really spend much time with them, actually.

And lids and containers and Tupperware boxes are the best toys on Earth. There’s also games that you can play intentionally, like if you put a ping pong ball – or a table tennis ball, I know in India we used to call it ping pong. I think they call it table tennis in the rest of the world. Some of the vocabulary gets mixed up for me. But if you put a ping pong ball in a glass of water and you give the little ones – two-, three-year-olds can do this – you give them a straw and ask them to move that ping pong ball in the water, done. You’ve got them engaged. They’re completely focused.

So, I go back to the concept of it’s a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it becomes. And the stronger it becomes, the bigger the pathway. And the children can actually go into kindergarten having equipped their brains with listening, paying attention, retaining, learning, whatever’s being taught, following directions, all of the executive function skills.

And the other one is a really fun one, if you ever want to do that with your boys: a bell. So, you can do it as a family. And the game is, before you start the game… I’ve done it actually with three-year-olds in a classroom and all of them did it. I was amazed, 14 of them did this.

So, the game is that you pass the bell from person to person. And before you play the game, you tell them, “This game has three things that we’re going to learn. Teamwork…” So, you explain teamwork. What is that concept? “We work together, we help each other out.”

“Second is going to teach us self-control. What is that? You get to control your arms; you get to control your legs; you get to control your mouth.” They would love to be in control of something. Get them to be in control of their bodies.

“And the third thing you get to do is patience.” So, we talk about patience. “You wait for your turn.” And the game is, you pass the bell from person to person without ringing the bell. But if the bell rings, you’ve got to send it back to the first person. And I will tell you, kids love this game. But this is a game to strengthen their focus and attention. That’s what this is.

And so you time yourself and you go round with – I did it with fourteen, I’m telling you, and everybody was so excited. They held their bodies so well, they did such good with self-control ‘til the bell came back to me. And then we rang it really loudly because we couldn’t hold ourselves anymore.

Yeah, it’s funny because I think, as an adult, we tend to try to overcomplicate things, maybe. And sometimes it’s just some of these ideas that you brought up, like the ping pong ball and the straw and the bell, they’re pretty simple activities on the surface. But again, that’s sort of where they’re practicing and building those muscles of those executive functions, as you call them.

Intentional, right? So, I started the conversation by saying we have to be intentional. So, when you buy toys, when you offer activities, think of it in the way, “Is it going to help them to use their pincher muscles? Is it going to help them with hand-eye coordination?” There’s also one that you can do with feet and eye coordination, which not many people do and is really fun.

Take a tennis ball, tie a string to it and have the child hold the string – I did it at home with my granddaughter. And she held the yarn, which wrapped around a tennis ball. And the idea was that she had to kick with her feet, alternating left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot. And do you know it takes more attention and focus because that ball just keeps going between the legs. And three-year-olds and four-year-olds really have to work hard at that.

Yeah, that’s a good point, too. Like, some of the things I guess you kind of take for granted, that you would be able to do that. But at that age, you’re still developing those abilities. Now, what if I’m trying these things at home – or as an educator – and it’s still really hard and maybe there’s some specific children we’re struggling with, whether that’s our children at home or in the class, on attention and focus. Is something you help with through some of the coaching work that you’re doing through Together We Grow?

Yes. So, the one-on-one coaching – like I mentioned earlier, I do business coaching for the directors owners, for the business part. But when I do one-on-one coaching, I’ve done entire schools where I’ve gone and worked with each teacher in the school. I’ve also just done one classroom at a time. I’ve done it with parents. And I offer 30 minutes [of] free consultation. So, it doesn’t hurt to just reach me and contact and we can figure out if it works.

And really – and this is not me bragging, but this has been the stats – 100% of the families and schools I’ve worked with have seen an improvement with behaviors and with attention and improved confidence and self-esteem because it’s all linked, right? It’s all connected. So yeah, definitely.

And the ones who are struggling and don’t really want to reach out to me, what I would say is use the language of telling the child when the child is struggling with it, use the language of, “You haven’t mastered it yet. Don’t give up. You haven’t mastered it yet. You’re still learning. We all have things we are learning.”

And I think sometimes adults forget to remind children in their world that you’re not the only one who is struggling at this. Because children get quite frustrated on themselves, like, “Why didn’t I get this?” And, “I’m no good at this.” So, if we can model that “I’m still learning, there’s lots that I still need to do.”

And also – I don’t know if you heard of this concept or not – but the Perfect Prerna. Like, when Perfect Prerna shows up she gets me frustrated because she wants to do everything just so right. And so I’ve had this conversation with my granddaughter: “When Perfect Ava shows up, we can just recognize it. Oh, there she is! We don’t need to react, we could just recognize it.” It’s an emotion, right? Perfection is an emotion. So, when they’re learning a new skill, we need to show them patience by modeling it, but also teaching them the concept of “Not yet”.

Yeah, and we were talking about that concept at HiMama, as well: the power of “Yet”. It’s not that we’re not doing it or we can’t do it. We haven’t done it yet. I love that. Now, we’re running out of time. So, any final words of wisdom for our listeners here who are struggling at home, maybe with having kids at home? You can probably hear mine screaming downstairs throughout my building. What words of optimism and positivity would you have for all of us folks at home with our children?

So, I would just say, attention and focus is something that, as adults, we still suffer ourselves from. So, having some grace for ourselves and having some grace for our children is a good place to start.

Pay attention to the diet because diet can affect attention. And more chemicals and more processed and all of that can actually put a strain. And also – I don’t know how many people know about the concept of the liver. Our liver in our body is created to take out toxins. But when we over-think or over-plan, the liver actually ends up generating a lot of heat. So, you can put ice packs on your liver to help with your tension and cooling down your brain.

Meditating is another way. And by meditating I mean, for children it could just be listening to the nature sounds. If you’re outside, “Okay, pay attention to what sounds are you’re hearing right now? How many different birds are you hearing?” Taking deep breaths is all good for the attention. It’s all good for settling down and relaxing our brain.

And we have to just think of it like that. We cannot pay attention when we are stressed out or if our brain is distracted. So, what can we do to calm our brain, rest our brain? And I also believe that giving a gift of settled attention to our children is a good gift to give them, that will take them for the rest of their life in a strong, settled, focused foundation, attention.

Yeah, you make it sound so easy!

It’s doable, it’s not impossible. It’s doable.

Alright, well, if our listeners want to get in touch with you or learn more about the work you’re doing, where can they go to get more information, Prerna?

Thank you, yes, please find me on wwwTogetherWeGrow.online. The website is there; the consultation link is there. I’m also on social media – Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn – Together We Grow or Prerna Richards, either one.

And I also actually have a free downloadable link if anybody’s interested in more games that I just mentioned two or three over here. But if somebody wants more free resources, contact me through my website and I’d be happy to send you the link.

Very cool, that’s www.TogetherWeGrow.online. And a 30-minute, free one-on-one consultation, that’s a very gracious offer. So, we really encourage people to reach out to Prerna if you would like to chat about anything related to supporting focus, improved attention, self-control and impulse control in young children, as well as those administrators and directors out there looking for some consulting advice and coaching about the business side of running your chlldcare and early-childhood education programs. Prerna, thank you for all the work that you’re doing and for joining us here today on the Preschool Podcast!

Thank you, Ron. It’s been a pleasure connecting with you!


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