Activities Which Build up Our Attention Muscles
By: Deborah Brenna
Today we will wrap up our discussion on cultivating attention, by talking about some beautiful ways that you can grow your attention muscles. These things might seem simple, but they are powerful tools for training our brains to pay attention in the moment. These are also great things you can do with your kiddos to help their ability to focus and pay attention.
One of my favorite attention building exercises is the “quiet 5 minutes.” It’s as simple as it sounds. Take 5 minutes and simply be quiet and observe. We like to do this outside. Try not to let your mind wander too much during this time, instead try to focus on what you see, hear, smell, or feel, ect. You can also take this time to be thankful. When I do this with my children, we do it in smaller increments, and I ask them what they observed. We often do this before we work in our nature notebooks.
Another similar, sense exercise can be done with food or something to drink. How often do we just fly through a meal and not even taste our food? Sit with one of your favorite foods for a few minutes and eat slowly. Try to notice all of the subtle flavors; the way it feels on your tongue; how it makes you feel. Take time to feel grateful for what you are eating. If you are doing this with your kids, take turns describing what you observed.
In a similar way, all of us who are using Charlotte Mason to teach our children should be participating in their work. Picture study—which is where you look at a painting and try to notice everything you can about it, making a copy in your head, and then putting it down and saying everything you remember about it—is not just for studying art, or artists, it is a magnificent tool for building attention. If you’re not doing this with your kids, I highly recommend it.
Nature study is also an amazing way to build your attention. Going out, alone or with your kiddos, and observing the nature around you and then recording it, in detail in your notebook becomes a habit. If you do it on a regular basis, you will find that you are noticing (paying attention to) more things every time you leave the house. You will go out to walk the dog and find yourself saying, “Oh! I know what that tree is. Wow, I never noticed how many of those trees are in our neighborhood.” Or you will be driving to your mother’s house and say, “Wait, what are those mountains over there? I’ve never noticed them before.” Seriously, I have lived in Rio Rancho my whole life and I missed an entire range of mountains on the horizon.
Keeping a book of firsts works this way too. In a book of firsts you have a calendar where you write down the first time you saw something (in nature) that year. For instance: November 13th first freeze, April 2nd the irises are poking through the ground, May 4th Mrs. Robin is back in her nest. When you make a habit of this you will find yourself noticing all sorts of things. And you will get a feel for the rhythm of the year. You will be paying attention to what is going on around you, without even trying.
Charlotte Mason also recommended keeping a book on students. In this case it would be a book on your children. She would take time every day to write down the little things she observed about her students, where they needed help, what their good or bad behavior was like, where they were excelling, etc. This no doubt gave her time to connect with her children and be able to interact with them in a more meaningful way. I know I lose track of where my kids are at when life gets hectic. I’ve utilized a book like this several times to help me keep track of health concerns, habits, and general concerns over what might be going on in their lives. And keeping a book like this can also help you pay attention to the other people around you, training your brain to notice what is going on outside yourself.
Last but not least, narration. Narration is the Charlotte Mason practice of telling back. A CM student will read something and then narrate out loud or on paper what they read, in their own words, in as much detail as they can. Next time you read something, try to write down a narration, in as much detail as possible when you are done reading. It really builds up memory, but also your attention to detail as you try to take a mental note of the various things you read, so that you can have a complete narration at the end. This also works great for paying attention when someone is tilling you something important. Tell it back to yourself when you have a chance and you’ll take the time to reflect and remember.
I could probably give plenty of more examples about how you can practice paying attention, but I hope these will be enough to get us all started moving in that direction. What helps you cultivate attention? Have you tried any of these things? How did it go?