Sensory Sensibility: strategies for focusing young minds

By Emmy Brockman

The world is awash in sensory stimuli. Something to see and smell, or touch and taste, in every encounter. It can be overwhelming. An example: last Friday, a friend and I walk into a crowded and cramped cafe.  The kitchen is open and heat radiates from the broad grills. Music plays loudly, while conversations amplify to compete. We are seated in view of 3 televisions – each broadcasting a different channel. The food is scrumptious, subtle, and ample. The crowd, the heat, the music, the conversation, the televisions, the meal. Sensory saturation! In such situations, focus shifts sporadically, the mind wanders, and conversation is taxing. This example begins to illustrate the barrage of sensory input experienced by young children at all times.

According to Maria Montessori, creator of the Montessori education method, young children experience several “sensitive periods” from birth to age 6. Sensitive periods are broadly defined as important times of childhood neurodevelopment. Skills acquired during these periods include language, coordination, and the ability to sort sensory stimuli. This post will focus on that last one, the sorting of sensory stimuli. Montessori notes,

“A child takes in information about the world through his senses. As the brain develops, it becomes able to discriminate between relevant and irrelevant sensory stimuli. The most efficient way to accomplish this is for the brain to pay attention to all sensory stimuli. The most repetitive (and therefore most important) of these will strengthen neural pathways, while the less common, although initially detected, will not provide enough brain activity to develop sensitivity to them.”

In other words, young children (roughly birth to age 4) indiscriminately take in whatever sensory stimuli they are exposed to. Imagine being attuned to every sensory input in your environment, no filter. As adults, our brain’s filter is firmly in place, however, here is an interesting sensory exercise to try. Pause during your day and take stock of each of your senses. Notice what your immediate mind has filtered: perhaps the feel of the chair beneath you, or subtler smells, or sounds of cars passing in the background. Now, imagine doing this exercise in the crowded cafe scenario from the previous paragraph. That is akin to the experience of a 2 year old.

Through this thick mist of senses we, as parents or educators, sometimes want young children to focus. In fact, we often want young children to focus. We struggle with it, stress about it, and are constantly strategizing. Respecting a young child’s sensory exploration while wishing them to focus on a task – putting on their shoes for example – can be a challenging balance. Keeping this in mind, the rest of this post will discuss CCM tested strategies to gain and maintain the attention of young children in a sensory saturated world.

  • Troubleshoot before trouble starts
    • As an educator, I attempt to carefully curate program spaces to mitigate distractions. Reggio Emilia and Montessori education philosophies both stress the importance of a child’s physical environment to encourage learning. Keeping this in mind, program/play spaces can be bright, inviting, and rather austere. There is no need to pack the space with toys, as children need space to move around and the fewer items, the fewer distractions.
  • Out of sight out of mind
    • The immediate sensory input of young children is so engaged that their minds really operate on a “out of sight out of mind” principle. Often grabbing the distracting object and simply sitting on it or putting it on a high shelf will refocus the child’s attention. On countless occasions I’ve wordlessly taken a sharp stick or oozing marker or noisy whistle from a child, stuck it in my shirt, and handed them something else (anything else) in return. Generally the child barely registers the exchange, particularly if they’ve dropped the object before you remove it. The real treat is discovering all these items tucked in my clothing at the end of the day!
  • Make yourself the distraction
    • At Children’s Creativity Museum I lead music and storytelling programs for young children. In hopes of holding young children’s attention, I try to make myself the most interesting thing in the room. Moment by moment this can be accomplished by being highly dynamic:
      • Fluctuate voice pitch and volume
      • Make large body gestures
      • Employ exaggerated facial expressions
      • Play an instrument or switch from a speaking voice to a singing voice
  • Be consistent
  • Manage your expectations and be flexible
    • When planning activities for young children I ask: Is this activity age appropriate? Can I reasonably expect a 2 year old to do this? What is my plan if this does not work? What is my second plan? And third plan?

As CCM’s Early Childhood Specialist, I use these tools everyday, and everyday I am surprised, foiled, outsmarted, and constantly adopting new strategies. Do you have strategies for holding the attention of young children? Leave a comment! I’d love to give them a try!

It should also be noted that this advice is directed primarily at children birth to four years old. Do these strategies work for older children? How might they be adapted for a school aged audience? How is the sensory experience of older children different? What new challenges accompany those differences?


2 responses to “Sensory Sensibility: strategies for focusing young minds

  1. Steven Guggenheim

    Hey, Emmy, I really enjoyed reading this article and thinking about the sensory bombardments we all unconsciously filter out every moment. Beautifully written, clear and concise. Thanks!

  2. Pingback: Sensory Sensibility: strategies for focusing young minds | Creative By Nature

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