Getting Kids to Focus and Engage—December, 2019

I was pondering today some of the things I experienced as a kid that seem to be missing for many of our children today. I grew up in a big city, but even there I had plenty of places to explore and play. Do you remember doing things like:

  • Going to a friend’s house and building a fort
  • Climbing trees
  • Playing marbles, hide-and-seek and catch
  • Catching crawdads in the irrigation ditch
  • Riding a bike EVERYWHERE
  • Spinning on a merry-go-round until your head couldn’t take it any more
  • Swinging so high you thought you might go over the bar from which your swing was suspended
  • Getting into a large tractor tire and rolling down the hill (please don’t tell my mom about that one)

As I thought about these activities, I realized that some of them would probably have made my parents more than a little nervous if they had witnessed them. Riding a bike on a city street is inherently risky.  Rolling in a tractor tire is, by definition, an “out of control” experience. And playing in the irrigation ditch? What parent wouldn’t get a little queasy at the thought of their kid getting caught in the current and heading “downstream”?

However, I wonder if perhaps we have swung too far in the other direction. Have you been to a playground recently and heard things like:

  • “Someone is going to break their arm over there!” 
  • “She’s going to fall and get hurt.” 
  • “He’s spinning, and he’s going to get sick.” 
  • “That’s too dangerous!” 
  • “Someone is going to get their fingers pinched!” 
  • “That’s not safe. Put your bottom on the swing.”

I am concerned that we are restricting our children’s ability to move and play more than is necessary to protect them. This lack of activity can lead to various problems, including stimulating negative behavior. This is not just a matter of lack of movement being bad for our kids physically; it is also bad for neurological development.

In order for kids to listen, focus and learn to sit still, they have to develop both their proprioception and vestibular sense. These two words describe easily understandable concepts:

“Proprioception” is what tells us where our various body parts in relation to other parts of our body. It allows us to do such things as hit a baseball, turn the steering wheel the proper amount and even get the popcorn in our mouths in a movie theater. Lack of this ability results in kids pushing too hard in a game, falling out of their seat at the dinner table or tripping when trying to walk upstairs.

“Vestibular Sense” helps us understand where our body is in relation to the outside world. We don’t even have to look; we interact with gravity, centrifugal force and other moving objects in a way that is automatic. Without this ability, kids tend to fidget, get frustrated and stand to close to others; they struggle with focusing and listening.

Many studies show the link between under-development of these abilities and problems with putting on clothes, trying new foods, finishing homework, etc. John Ratey, MD, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, encourages us to “Think of exercise as medication. For a very small handful of people with attention deficit disorder, it may actually be a replacement for stimulants, but, for most, it’s complementary — something they should absolutely do, along with taking meds, to help increase attention and improve mood.”

Here are a few ways to support your child’s proprioceptive input:

  • Carry or lift boxes
  • Push or pull a wagon
  • Build a fort
  • Rake leaves
  • Shovel snow
  • Pick up and put down heavy sticks
  • Dig in the dirt
  • Carry buckets of sand or water
  • Give hugs
  • Knead playdoh
  • Jump on a trampoline
  • Chew on something
  • Squeeze a stress ball
  • Play Tug-O-War with a stretchy band

Here are a few ways to support your child’s vestibular sense:

  • Spin in circles
  • Use a Merry-Go-Round
  • Roll down a hill
  • Spin on a swing
  • Hang upside down
  • Climb trees
  • Rock
  • Jump rope
  • Do summersaults or cartwheels
  • Use monkey bars
  • Skate
  • Walk backwards
  • Swim
  • Dance
  • Wheel-barrel walks

Sometimes we need to let our kids “live dangerously”. We have all cringed when we see our kids doing something risky, but we need to be proficient at balancing the risk with the reward. We need to allow (and even help) our kids push their physical boundaries.

Children with healthy neurological systems seek out the sensory input they need without thinking about it. When they jump, swing, spin, pick up rocks or dig in the dirt, kids are doing exactly what they need. They aren’t intentionally doing it to get hurt, act rambunctiously, worry you or get messy; they are doing it to help themselves become safer, calmer and happier kids.


Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children, Angela J. Hanscom

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