When new Beginner students are settling into my classroom at Wellan Montessori, there are a few things we start working on immediately: mobility, grip strength, and ability to concentrate.
A child needs to be mobile to approach the shelves and carry a tray to the table — an essential prerequisite to self-selecting work. A child needs some degree of grip strength to handle utensils, tools, pitchers. They need grip strength to pull the drawers in the bathroom open to get their own clothing and diapers. They need grip strength to pull their pants up and put their shoes on. Children need concentration to sit at specials, to finish a meal, to master tasks, to receive lessons — all of our classroom rituals require children to be able to focus for at least a few minutes. Our environment, routine, and practices are carefully planned to encourage toddler concentration.
I’ve been pleased to see the learning and creativity-rich environments that my students have at home as well. As we continue into the semester, I wanted to share some of the secrets of the trade to help toddlers maintain and develop their ability to concentrate, so that they can continue to derive benefit from the learning opportunities provided by both their parents and teachers.
General Tips for Fostering Concentration in Toddlers:
1. Think of concentration as a muscle — start small.
The goal is to stretch the duration of a child’s concentration, increase the diversity of activities that entice them into concentration, increase their resilience to distractions, and encourage them to repeat activities. Being able to concentrate on a variety of activities for 5–10 minutes is a reasonable goal for a very young child, but that may start at 1–2 minutes. Notice what is piquing your child’s attention, and see if you can create an insulated environment in which they can focus on that activity for a few moments.
2. Encourage concentration with mild to medium stimulation sensory play.
Sensory play is important for toddlers; however, if the stimulation is too intense it will not be helpful to develop concentration, because it raises the bar of what is required to hold their attention and acts more like entertainment. Stick to things that stimulate one or two senses at a time.
3. Limit or eliminate gross-motor elements.
The importance of gross-motor work cannot be overstated for toddlers, and gross-motor breaks are important for a toddler’s ability to concentrate. However, gross-motor elements will often overwhelm other activities. Provide them with a comfortable spot to sit with everything they need in front of them so they do not need to get up for the duration of the activity.
4. Set time limits.
5–10 minutes is a reasonable goal for a young child to concentrate on a single activity. Toddlers may stretch out an activity by coming up with their own extensions (such as lining up their crayons, or naming the colors). They are less likely to maintain good-quality concentration when continuing to explore an activity after 5–10 minutes, and may start mis-using materials or trying to get the attention of others. This shows you the child is no longer interested in the activity and is looking for a way to make something else happen. Notice when a child’s attention starts to wander, and suggest they move onto something else. Ideally, an activity will be self-limiting, or have a clear endpoint, and children will regulate the cycle of their work themselves. Note that this pattern may differ for pretend play or open-ended, exploratory play — like building with blocks or art.
Ideas for Protecting Concentration During Remote Learning:
1. Have a designated spot for watching videos, attending circle and together times. A supportive, child-sized chair and table are likely better than a large chair or sofa. Remember that at school we do much of our learning sitting on the floor. A clear spot on a rug where the child can sit cross-legged is fine.
2. Consider what is and isn’t helpful for your child in particular. For some children having a snack might encourage a sense of community, for others they may be solely focused on the food. A lovey or familiar toy to hold may give their hands something to do. A new toy or one with moving parts may provide a distraction.
3. Allow children to take short breaks. Especially when looking at screens, it is common for children to want to look away for a few moments.
4. Give older siblings a place to sit as well if you expect them to join.
Activity Ideas to Increase Focus:
Sensory activities that stimulate 1–2 senses and have limited actions
Dyed rice or pasta (visual and tactile)
Water with whisk and dish soap (tactile, visual)
Flour or oatmeal with a measuring cup and spoon (touch)
Smelling jars (dip cotton balls in essential oils or perfumes and put in jars. You can name the smells for children or just let them explore.) Note: Younger children may not be able to control their inhale in a way that allows them to do this work.
Sorting pasta shapes
Sorting trail mix
Sorting toys by color
Sorting seeds or beans
Setting the table (one fork per person, etc.)
Cooking and baking (one scoop in each muffin tin, one pecan on each cookie, etc.)
Scrubbing veggies, toys, tables, etc.
Carrying things to the trash
Carrying things to the dishwasher
Polishing wood with oil
Polishing brass, bronze, or copper with lemon juice and salt
Note: We all know small children love chores — they love to be helpful, they love to do something that’s useful, and they love to mimic the activities of adults. In order for small children to be successful with chores, they need to have tools that are reasonably sized for them and the tasks must be reasonably difficult. Set up the materials for a chore beforehand and try it start to finish. Notice any impediments that might prevent your child from completing it on their own. [Read more in our Guide for First Chores.]
The Value of Repetition:
Young children need and enjoy novelty, and lucky for them, there are a lot of things they haven’t done yet. As the weeks at home stretch into months, you may find yourself running out of activity ideas. And that is OKAY. Recycling the same ideas a few days in a row gives your child the opportunity to practice, to build muscle, and to learn how to master a skill.
Explore our full archive of Beginner resources here.