Susan Magsamen is the Senior Vice President of Early Learning at global learning company Houghton Mifflin Harcourt She is a member of the Educational Advisory Board for The Goddard School and senior advisor to The Science of Learning Institute and Brain Science Institute at Johns Hopkins University. This piece was originally published on HMH’s blog.
My own love of reading was cultivated in an era with fewer distractions than today. At that time, all of our play was physical and concrete – we played with hands-on toys and games, we rode bicycles and played outside (which held opportunities for all sorts of mischief). I recall putting on plays, having visceral experiences with art supplies, some television, and lots of books. Reading offered both privacy and companionship, an opportunity to focus and contemplate, but also indulge the imagination.
I realize now that there was a special kind of innocence wrapped up in these memories. During my own childhood, distraction was the murmur of the radio or television, or the sight of something fleeting that simply “caught your eye.” Things are different today. Adults and children are caught in a blizzard of digital noise streaming from various devices that constantly compete for our attention, disrupting our focus. There is no doubt that this new reality has impacted the way we read and engage with books.
Daniel Goleman, a psychologist best known for spotlighting emotional intelligence, has noted that the deluge of distractions can have far-reaching effects. Speaking to KQED’s Forum, he explained “because attention is under siege more than it has ever been in human history, [and] we have more distractions than ever before, we have to be more focused on cultivating the skills of attention.”
According to Goleman, the neural circuitry that registers attention in the prefrontal cortex of the brain is identical to the circuits that govern executive functioning, which includes the ability to manage distressing emotions and to feel empathy.
Medical research has identified clinical conditions that may interfere with a child’s ability to focus, but to tackle real-world distractions, there are things we can do at home and in the classroom to minimize the noise and create an environment conducive to experiencing the magic of reading.
With this in mind, what can we do to foster a love of reading in our children that stems simply from the sheer pleasure and joy that a great story provides?
Here are five easy ways to create a distraction-free reading zone for kids.
- Create a Dedicated Reading Space: Create a reading environment free of clutter. The fewer objects that can capture your child’s attention, the better.
- Get Comfy: Have a comfortable chair or cushion for children and adult readers to sit on. The physical comfort helps kids relax their bodies, which in turn facilitates attention and focus.
- Start a Reading Ritual: Ritualize the opportunity to read. For very young children, the ritual of a bedtime story is the enchanting portico that leads to more reading. Consecrating the event early on acknowledges that reading time is special, even as children get older and read on their own. Having a special hat to wear or a pillow to sit on just for reading designates that reading time is distinct from other activities.
- Take Time to Share: Give your child ample opportunity to share what they have read. Remember, a joy shared is doubled! Ask some simple questions about your child’s reading experience to encourage engagement: Who was your favorite character? What did you like about the story? How did the book make you feel?
- Be a Reading Role Model: Model a love of reading. Whether you show your kids the stack of books on your night table, or point out how much you love to read the newspaper with your morning coffee, highlighting the ways that reading enriches your life will help them understand the importance and enjoyment of literacy.
It is important for adults to find some quiet space amidst the distractions as well. I heard a story the other day that offered a vivid reminder of this concept: A four-year-old girl learned how to make the color green in school, mixing yellow and blue paints to create a series of green hues. With carbonated excitement, she couldn’t wait to show her father. But when he came home, he was concentrating on his cell phone. He finished a call and then began to text. The child’s efforts to capture his attention were futile until, with her art work in one hand, she gave a good, hard tug on the leg of his pants. Her father then looked down and said, “Sara, what are you doing down there?” To which she replied, “Daddy, I live down here.”
To create an environment that is conducive to concentration, young children need our undivided attention. By finding and nurturing those simple moments of focus, we can enjoy “living” in our children’s worlds and be present as they share in ours.