Kim Dameworth practices the habit of attention with her middle school students.

Cultivating the Habit of Attention

It is impossible to overstate the importance of this habit of attention. It is, to quote words of weight, ‘within the reach of everyone, and should be made the primary object of all mental discipline’; for whatever the natural gifts of the child, it is only so far as the habit of attention is cultivated in him that he is able to make use of them.

Charlotte Mason, Home Education, p. 146

At Redeemer School, parents and teachers partner in teaching the cultivation of good habits. In September, we focus on a habit that Charlotte Mason frequently described in her writing, the habit of attention. We describe this habit as: 

  • Fixing mind/body steadily on the matter at hand
  • Following instructions the first time
  • Being motivated by a desire to know rather than emulation or popularity

Adults and children are distracted more than ever thanks to social media, video games, and even shifting camera angles in movies. I can admit that my attention span has been challenged by the glowing screen in my hand or on my lap. My attention has been grabbed, applications have been constantly switched, and I’ve found myself less and less focused. 

I am so grateful for the purposeful cultivation of this habit at our school, not only for the benefit of our students but for all of us adults who are learning alongside them! 

“It started with one child. Then I joined. I came alongside her. Then a few more joined and soon we were discussing the tree, the spiderweb on the tree, the plane far away, the birds… Can they fly as high as the plane? The clouds … “ – Cindy Pabon, Kindergarten Teacher

How can we cultivate the habit of attention at school and at home? 

  • Get outdoors: When you are enjoying God’s creation, stop to notice the familiar and the unfamiliar. Make what you are noticing more interesting by talking about all the things about the object that there are to notice and wonder about. 
  • Nature Study: Nature study is the practice of giving focused attention to the beauty and design of nature in order that they may better know the Designer. Nature study is taking time to look. A careful examination of colors, textures, and movement through nature study painting puts an indelible mark on our person. Charlotte Mason says in regard to the medium: “This is what we wish to do for children in teaching them to draw ⎼ to cause the eye to rest, not unconsciously, but consciously, on some object of beauty which will leave in their minds an image of delight for all their lives to come,” (Home Education, p. 313). 
  • Narration:  Through narration, a child is challenged to think back, remember, and then verbalize what he has learned. Charlotte Mason made the observation that what a child digs for becomes his own possession. One of the best ways to practice the habit of attention is to narrate after reading or hearing something only once. Begin with short stories/events and progress to longer ones. 
  • Picture Study: Picture study allows time for the children to muse over, describe, or reproduce a picture. The emphasis is not on which child has the best reproduction, but on each individual’s attentiveness to the details and style of the work of art. This requires close attention to detail, recalling those details from memory.
  • Handicrafts: Charlotte Mason said, “The human hand is a wonderful and exquisite instrument to be used in a hundred movements exacting delicacy, direction, and force; every such movement is a cause of joy as it leads to the pleasure of execution and the triumph of success. We begin to understand this and make some efforts to train the young in the deft handling of tools and the practice of handicrafts,” (Vol. 6, p. 328). Handicrafts provide lots of opportunities to observe, and the more often your child observes, the sooner that skill will become a helpful habit. Training your hand to work in tandem with your eye requires time, attention, and experience. 

A child needs a living relationship with the present, its science, literature, art, music, as well as a historical flow of the past, its significant events, science, literature, art, and music. Those relationships are formed with sustained attention where new information can be woven in and creativity emerges.