Concentration! What children can teach us about learning

Stories from our Himalayan Chai project and other sources

Adults often complain that children aren’t able to concentrate on tasks, that they have a short attention-span that has to be accommodated when they try to learn something new, or that they are slow to pick up things and we adults have to assist them with daily tasks like self-care. This is also a common question that ‘experts’ are asked, with a quick follow-up: “How can I improve my child’s concentration?” What we fail to realise is that, in fact, children are capable of log stretches of attention to specific activities, but the patterns that they follow is one that is internally driven rather than otherwise. Those of us who are in tune with children’s minds are sometimes able to engage children effectively, as these examples will show.

Concentration and engagement do not require elaborate equipment

In the first example, our little five year-old friend is engaged in a sketching activity using her own, her mother’s and uncle’s palms. Each scene is elaborated, and she is completely absorbed in this game continuously for about half an hour.

Deep in concentration, sketching on her uncle’s hand
“A girl, she’s reading a book about ice-sculptures” That’s the reason for the emanating rays!
Now this is an elaborate scene. A rose, I love you mom, a caterpillar, and above these there are birds and ponies (the small dots) and a radiant sun! Oh, also, on the fingers there is a glass, coconut, aspiraland a rope 😀
And here is a sketch of a “girl with two-toned hair and long pony-tail”

Any keen observation of young children will demonstrate the fact that provided there is no underlying difficulty, young children are capable of long spells of concentration with a caveat that the engagement has to be of the child’s own selection or interest, and not imposed. Adults often make demands to organise children’s time on task according to what they have in mind, and unfortunately, convergence between the two sides is quite rare, even if you are well aware of what draw’s children attention. When we need them to fit into our schedules rather than the other way around, we can miss precious elements in their involvement with the world around them. Children appear to want to linger when we want them to move, and they want to move when we wish they would sit still. Their magical world is hard to access and understand if we don’t make a concerted effort, and we can land up with the erroneous conclusion that all they wish to do is resist.

The origins of Intelligence

Children have the capacity to look intensely at things, even as babies. Piaget’s detailed descriptions of his daughter’s preoccupation with trying to put a chain into a matchbox demonstrate intense concentration on her part, both in studying the task as well as arriving at a solution. The problem of getting a long and flexible chain to go into a partially open matchbox was figured out by her in a flash, as she tried opening and closing her mouth, she discovered that the matchbox could be opened, and the chain, if held in the middle, would easily drop into the container. (See page 337 in manuscript link below for this and other experiments with matchboxes). Anyone who has observed children absorbed in activities of their choice will testify to the fact that they are endowed with a tremendous capacity to focus on task completion, a predilection that we often fail to notice.

Himalayan chai: Lessons in face-washing 101

Our Himalayan Chai project with Adventure Sindbad through Vishwas Raj has resulted in the collection of a whole range of observations of children going about their daily lives along remote Himalayan regions. A link to the project is presented in the notes section. Here is a video that I had on repeat the first time I saw it.

Video 1:

We see here a four year old girl in the Landruk area of Nepal, washing her face just outside her home. Landruk is about three hours from Pokhra in Nepal where the motorable road culminates and the treks to the mountains start. Families in this village are familiar with tourists and locals engaged in the trekking industry, but very few visitors outside of that. There are many houses and lodges cut into the mountain-side, and this little girl is busy, just outside her home. As Vishwas and his group move about the village before heading on to their proposed trek, he comes across this young girl and strikes up a conversation with her. He is quite taken aback by her autonomy and skill in managing herself. The courtyard was empty, and at a small distance, downhill, one can hear some children playing, with who she even engages towards the end of the recording, giving them some sort of instruction to complete a task. When Vishwas addresses her, she doesn’t stop what she’s doing to engage in the conversation. When he sent me this video, Vishwas commented on the contrast he finds between his city dwelling niece of the same age and this young girl, the former still needs assistance to care for herself. He is struck by this child’s poise and ease with strangers. This was holiday time in Nepal for the Diwali period that is almost a month long vacation from school,and that is why the children are at home. Another interesting detail one notices in the pictures below is the cane jhula in which infants are placed when they sleep. Here are some still frames of the face-washing session.

The end of the motorable road, Landruk
Face-washing 1
Rinsing the mouth
Rubbing soap
Baby cot!
The family home

When everything comes to a standstill

When children concentrate on a task, it’s as if the world comes to a halt. In this accidental encounter with a boy, probably also around four years of age, we see an instance of that absorption. On his way to the playground in our housing complex, he had simply plonked himself in the middle of the foyer, unmindful of everything around him. The task at hand? Tying his shoelaces. It is hard to resist the urge to squat down and assist the child here, but that is precisely what we have to learn (not) to do… allow children to complete the cycle of concentration. Unfortunately, many of us are not good at that, neither at home, nor in schools. We want children to follow our imagined sequences that we believe are best for them. In this video, we can see how, towards the end of the recording, he flits his gaze towards the camera, but is quite unmoved by the attention, so intense was his concentration.

There is an important lesson here: Children will concentrate when they want to master a task, not when YOU want them to. So next time you complain about a child’s inability to focus on something, keep this in mind. Does the child want to master the action or do you want him/her to? You will have your answer.

Video 2:


From Pooja

I feel this is a very important concern for many young and not so young parents. Is a child’s ability to concentrate linked to her intelligence? As a mother of two young girls, I often find myself challenging their attention by interfering: “Cm’on! Finish what you have started!””It’s super easy to get bored!”; or “Concentrate on the problem and you will get the answer”, “Focus on the task at hand please”. “Are you listening to me? Please pay attention!” I realise that perhaps I interfere too much. Phew!
YET, there are so many times when I have been taken aback by their capacity for focus…. For instance, when I return from a chaotic grocery shopping trip…..I often see them retiring into their den, intensely absorbed with their pens, or dolls or legos. I am fascinated since sometimes I myself find it super challenging to focus on and finish what I started, (The chaotic shopping spree and subsequent aftermath of putting things away, for example).
They surprise me often when they create thoughtful art pieces during the busy weekend days. Their ability to grasp nuances of adult conversations about travel and other stuff (finance, relationships, responsibilities, chores) that are promptly referenced during night-time conversations for further enquiry. Did they even hear what we were discussing? And hear enough to conduct an interview around the issue? I am fascinated by that capacity for understanding and retrieval, and their need to place the new, accidental information in perspective. To me they always look distracted but their minds can be so focussed, probably focusing on the thing that matters to them. I think that’s their skill for survival, and they focus on what’s relevant and filter out the rest. That’s perhaps where the difference in perspective comes from. For an adult what children should be focusing on and how, is usually nowhere on a child’s radar. We as adults inhabit a different world, even though we share the same spaces. Allison’s Gopnik work – “The philosophical baby” talks about this lantern vs. spotlight consciousness. 
In sum, what I feel is children are acutely cued in to what’s happening around them. It’s us who need to concentrate 🙂

From Reshu
I totally agree that children persist withthings of their own interest for a log time, and with increasing interest, but usually, thatis the time when parents turn around and say something like: “Ab bas kar yaar”?
I remember my niece made me play a make-believe ‘teacher student’ game for almost 2 hours with same scenes and same dialogues each time. By the end of it I was exhausted, bue she wanted to carry on, except that her mother’s arrival broke up the session. We are often contradictory in our messages to children, when there is too much repetition, we want children to drop their concentration, and in other moments, we are bothered by their inability to hold their attention.
My daughter and her cousins are now into dancing together and I have watched them repeating moves almost a thousand times to perfect their steps, and one can hear others around them say: “Do something else….” ‘Kuchh aur kar lo’. We get tired just watching them, but not they, and then I wonder where does this this energy and consistency and love for one activity come from?
You are so right, children just love to do what they love to do, and so it should be, can we concentrate for long if we are given a repetitive task? I remember sleeping in college during some classes because they were not interesting enough, despite sitting in the first row, it was tough to keep my eyes open. How can children concentrate where there is no interest? Why do we expect them to focus on meaningless tasks like line drawings etc. We need to be aware of what and how they like to spend their time. When we tell them stories, they will ask for repetition again and again, and never seem to get bored of the same stories, never. Every time they listen to it with renewed interest. My daughter loves it when I read old books and tell her stories that I have already told her about a thousand times. I thik she can concentrate better than me. But when I was a child, I too recall that I would ask my father to repeat the story of ‘Bhambakala’ over and over again. There is magic in children but it can not be forced into awakening by us. It’s their own secret world.

Video 3:


Piaget, J. (1952). The Origins of Intelligence in Children.

More about our Himalayan chai project with Adventure Sindbad:

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