So much has been said about the many ways in which new technologies steal our attention, changing our ability to focus on doing one thing at a time, or our ability to do nothing at all. We play with our phones while watching television and we look at our screens whenever we finally have a quiet moment. Many adults struggle with gaining their attention back. Some embark on a ‘digital diet’ or swear off screens at certain times of the day. If adults who grew up during quieter times find it hard to disconnect, how can we teach children, born into a world of constant
distractions, to focus on the moment and be able to give attention to just one thing for more than a few minutes?
These are increasingly important skills to have, in every area of life. Children naturally have shorter attention spans than adults, however growing up in an environment that constantly offers distractions can have a major impact on their ability to focus, as well as their ability to develop attention skills as adults. It’s also important for children to be able to get bored, as it develops their understanding of what they really enjoy doing. In addition, it opens a space for creativity to flourish and it allows for time to reflect, calm down, or process feelings and events.
So how can we develop children’s focus in a world of constant distractions? One way to do it which has been widely researched and discussed, is mindfulness: the act of purposefully giving attention.
Mindfulness is gaining huge popularity among parents and educators alike, and has been integrated across kindergartens and schools. Another great tool is to offer activities that are fully engaging, so that children focus on them without even trying; instead they just find themselves enjoying and being in the moment. Even better is combining the two: finding activities that offer both total immersion and engagement together with elements of mindfulness. These types of activities can be incredibly powerful for children. Often, these activities will include repetitive or rhythmic elements; they will offer the child the opportunity to be a part of a team, while still allowing for self-expression and creativity; and will provide constant learning and growth without being too challenging. Some of the best options for these types of activities are dance or music-based workshops, especially accessible and inclusive ones. For example, African drumming is an incredibly accessible form of music playing – within a minute of being introduced to the hand drum, anyone can follow a rhythm. It isn’t challenging at all to begin to play, however it offers a constant learning curve that keeps the child engaged. The repetition within the rhythm is a powerful tool for encouraging mindfulness, offering the same focus that is given to the breath in meditation practices. African drumming is best played in a group, demanding that attention is given to the rest of the players and to the rhythms played together; at the same time, students can also find space for self-expression and creativity and be given opportunities to solo or improvise. This also means that children will need to listen, follow and respond to the improvisation of other children. This is an important element as it demands that the child does not lose themselves in their own experience, but instead stay attuned to the group.
Drumming on djembes – the African hand drums – is a physical activity which provides a variety of tools for expanding the mindfulness experience. For example, students can focus on the movement of their hands, or they can practice breathing through vigorous drumming. The physical element of drumming also helps in diminishing signs of restlessness and relieving anxiety or stress, just as other forms of physical workouts offer. The stress relieving also helps in regaining focus and staying in the moment. The accessible and engaging qualities, together with the mindfulness elements of African drumming, demonstrate that attention can be gained and practiced in meaningful experiences, away from the screens and for substantial periods of times. Nowadays, when attention is an art that needs constant practicing and reinforcing, it is an incredibly valuable instrument.