What is attention?

How to support its development in children
Reading time: 3 minutes


Who among us hasn’t started a task, only to lose their concentration a few minutes later, distracted perhaps by their telephone or because they are tired or simply have other things on their mind? Concentrating means rallying our mental energies and managing to focus our thinking on a certain object (by object we do not necessarily mean something material: it can be a job, a task, a sensation, or even a state of mind). Managing to concentrate allows us to sustain our attention: one of the most important cognitive abilities that our brain uses to allow us to adapt to the surrounding environment and grow appropriately. It goes without saying, attention is directly linked to many other cognitive abilities: one of these is memory, by which we do not mean just a container for storing memories, images and events from our life, but also the plastic ability thanks to which we organise our inner world.

Today's society, it must be said, is rife with sources of distraction for adults and children alike: haste, the need to be quick and efficient at the same time, ever-reduced spaces and times, an array of devices (mobile phones, PCs, tablets) and often dysfunctional living habits too. This is a pity because it is precisely attention that ensures we complete many tasks, and not just work-related, but also management of life in general. Like every cognitive ability, it can be represented as a process of acquisition which children learn to express through the various developmental stages; naturally, the richer the environment that stimulates this ability, the more likely it is that the latter will be efficient and complete.

What is attention, in actual fact?

Attention is first and foremost a process of elimination: if we look around us, our brain is literally bombarded by stimuli - visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile - but also internal perceptions that come from our own body (hunger, thirst, gastrointestinal movements, hot and cold, tiredness, muscle sensations). If our brain were unable to make a selection from all these stimuli and could not concentrate on only the most important at that moment, trying instead to process every stimulus, it would go crazy at the sheer volume of data to be deciphered! In actual fact, since our brain is highly advanced it has programmed a sort of "app" which allows it to discard anything considered useless in order to make best use of whatever it deems crucially important and not to be lost, and to do this it relies on attention. Paying attention means channelling our whole being towards something and ignoring everything else, and it involves the ability to respond appropriately (with what neuroscientists call an "output").

Obviously, what is deemed significant and deserving of attention by one person might not be by another, as we all have our own sort of "personal filter" that leads us to seek stimuli of specific interest to us: this filter is created as we grow, based on our predisposition, way of life, interests, situations experienced, personal goals and everything that is strongly influenced by emotions perceived and felt, right from birth and throughout our lives. There are several different types of attention: sustained attention allows us to focus on a specific task for a continuous period; divided attention allows us to carry out two tasks at the same time; with selective attention we can concentrate on a single element while excluding all others; alternating attention allows us to switch focus back and forth between tasks. While adults use all these different types of attention, children first of all use selective attention and then gradually develop the other types as they grow.

How to help children to develop attention and concentration?

Children's concentration and attention can be stimulated through a series of simple, sound, functional behaviours that we, as parents, can implement without any great difficulty:

  • You can read to your children right from when they are just a few months old, choosing books recommended for their age (there are loads available): expressive reading, the tone of voice used and the opportunity to be with mum and dad mean that children are attracted by this "expressive" time spent together and are immediately stimulated to listen and pay attention.
  • Help your children not to be swamped by toys, offering them one toy at a time so that they have time to examine and manipulate it, without any hurry to move on to the next one.
  • Choose toys that require the ability to move, as from the earliest months children experience the world about them through movement and manipulation; they need practical "hands-on" experience of their environment, so that they know what it means, for example, to concentrate and carefully "study" a toy, their home environment or a park.
  • Avoid giving smartphones or tablets to children under two/three years old: scientific literature indicates that allowing such young children to use these devices increases the probability of attention deficit disorders at around seven or eight years of age. In general, avoid allowing children to spend too much time in front of a screen, as it does nothing to favour attention and actually dulls creativity, a quality which instead goes hand in hand with concentration.
  • At meal times, sit down together without the TV or computer on, as children need to pay attention not just to what they are eating, but also to those around them.
  • Try to organise day-to-day life around regular daily routines so that children know when they can concentrate on certain activities.
  • Make sure you too pay attention when you are with your children; unfortunately, the hectic pace of modern life coupled with work commitments can sometimes detract from quality time spent together as a family: it is a good idea to set aside time and space each day exclusively for your children, and the whole family will benefit.
  • Always have paper and coloured pencils and pens readily available: drawing stimulates concentration and attention, even in very young children, and it does not matter what they draw - let them experiment!
  • Go for walks in the fresh air, preferably in natural settings, and have fun playing a really simple game, finding as many sensory stimuli as possible: visual (sky, trees, sea...), auditory (birdsong, a babbling brook...), olfactory (smell of earth, flowers...), tactile (rough terrain, fine sand) and, why not, gustatory (what does rain taste like, mummy?). You will be amazed at how children can concentrate on the environment around them!
With older children you can have fun playing lots of board games that stimulate their attention and concentration (cards, memory games, quizzes, drawing) and remember music, dancing and singing too! You will notice that their attention and concentration is much better than yours, but never give up, you can train together!
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