How to Engage Children and Keep Their Attention

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Engaging children is easy when you know how. It can be difficult at first (believe me I know!) but follow the tips below and you will soon find that engaging with children and keeping their attention has become second nature.

If you don’t have a lot of experience with children, it can be quite intimidating to try to get them engaged in an activity, and actually keep their attention for more than five seconds so you can teach them something. These are normal fears, but the best thing you can do is relax – if you are having fun the kids are having fun! That’s my first tip – relax and be yourself if you want to engage children. And there’s plenty more tips for engaging children coming up…

I have been working with young children and teenagers for about eight years now, on a variety of informal and formal education projects. The tips below are all the things I wish someone had told me on my first day working with children!

These are the core principals I have found that work over and over again, for engaging with children and keeping them involved in an activity. I’ve learned these techniques from working with children of all age groups, in a variety of cultures – the amazing thing is that most kids love the same stuff. If you can connect into what children love, you will find it easy to engage children in all sorts of positive educational activities.

I’ve also included a few ‘don’ts’ – those things that will lose children’s attention faster than you can say ‘what just happened?’ !

Children just want to have fun!

This may sound obvious – but making a lesson or family activity fun can take some work!

Here is how to make an experience fun and engaging for young children:

1. Share your enthusiasm. We adults live in a cynical world where we have forgotten how to play, but young children exist in a state of perpetual wonder. So don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself – clown around a bit and pull a face, lead a game yourself and get the children to copy your actions, show them with your voice and your body language that you are really excited about spending time with them doing an activity.

2. Make a game out of it. There are very few activities that can’t be turned into a game when you are trying to engage children. A game just means that you are trying to see how well you can do something, or you are challenging yourselves to reach a goal, or you are showing off what you can already do – and then seeing if you can do something even harder. Friendly competition with no real losers will quickly engage children with an activity. A simple phrase like ‘lets see how fast we can do this …’ will soon grant you the children’s full attention.

3. Give the children an active role. No one likes a lecture and children least of all. The best way to learn is by doing and children in particular respond really well to getting a chance to try something for themselves. So include them! Even if you are telling a story, you can get them involved by getting them to act out some of the parts, or predict the repeating lines. And the wolf said … (everyone) and I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down!

4. Provide real experiences wherever you can. Your interaction with children is a chance to pull them away from the virtual world of computers into a real life sensory experience. Children love what they can touch and taste and smell. Reading about animals is no substitute for meeting real live animals. Hearing about the life-cycle of a plant bears no comparison with getting to dig up soil and plant your own seeds – then checking back on how they grow. Not to mention cooking and eating the product at the end! Even if you can’t get outdoors, you can still offer a real life experience – crafts are great for this, so are hands-on science experiments and dramatic role-plays.

5. Use Color. Colorful visuals are essential for engaging children, especially young children. Think of the story books you loved when you were a child – I bet they had beautiful colorful pictures, or else the story gave you a wonderful colorful image in your mind. Clowns know what they are doing with their costumes – children’s attention is drawn by color. So use colorful posters, storybooks or flashcards to engage young children and keep their attention.

6. Stories are always interesting. Everyone loves stories, and children most of all. A well-told story will always engage children’s attention. The best teachers are the ones who have learned how to make any information into a story. The latest neuro-marketing research has demonstrated that our brains remember stories better than any other form of information-sharing, making stories the best way to teach just about anything! Stories are particularly powerful for teaching life-lessons and moral values, but a creative teacher can turn even a science lesson into a story.

7. Be clear and be consistent. Children can relax and engage better if they know what to expect from you, if they know what the rules are and that you will stick to them. Consistency is key. Children hate ‘unfairness’. The rules are the rules – and this can even be fun when you set up a system of rewards that lets them chart their progress. Children actually really like having a routine, where they know where they stand – like Saturday is ice-cream day or Friday afternoon is free-play time. A structured routine gives them a safe space in which to play.

Dos and Don’ts for keeping children’s attention

  • Do raise your voice so you can be heard, but don’t ever shout. Losing your temper with children will cause them to quickly disengage from you and will damage your relationship with them.
  • Do have fun together, but don’t forget that you are in charge – you still need to keep the children to the rules and boundaries.
  • Do use games and structured activities to illustrate a point, don’t just stand and lecture children with a flow of words.
  • Do change the pitch and tone of your voice when you speak, emphasizing the important words in a sentence. Don’t speak in a meaningless monotone!
  • Do challenge children with games and problem-solving activities but don’t set them up for failure with a task which is far beyond their abilities.
  • Do use friendly competition to focus their attention, but don’t create a high-pressure atmosphere with painful consequences for ‘losers’. A sense of failure will quickly cause children to disengage. The best competition is against a goal (eg. see can you run across the yard and back in under a minute) rather than against each other – that just leads to tears and tantrums. If you’ve ever seen an episode of ‘The Apprentice’ you’ll know what I mean!!


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