3 Ways to Improve Your Child’s Ability to Attend While Playing at the Park

by Marcy Martin OTR/L

> The Power of Play

As parents we know that the simple act of play can build imagination and creativity, release built up energy and help foster a relationship between parent and child.

But did you also know that play can be a tool to help children develop skills that will improve their ability to attend?

Attention is a skill that children need to be successful in both school and home environments, so the ability to attend is often a high-priority skill for parents and teachers alike.

The beauty of attention skill-acquisition during play is that it encourages children to learn how to attend without making other cognitive demands. Play provides a fun, non-threatening environment for learning–which is precisely how most young children learn best!

Or, to use the words of Mr. Fred Rogers:

“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”

> Play at the Park

Since a favorite outdoor activity for many children is playing at a new or familiar park, here are 3 fun play activities that will help build your child’s attention skills when you are outside playing at the park.


Create an obstacle course: Based on the child’s age, think of 2-5 actions for your child to complete. For example, climb the ladder, go down the slide, crawl through the tunnel and run to tag the fence. Tell your child what the activities are and then have your child complete them.


  • Use a timer. Racing against the clock increases the challenge, especially for older children.
  • Draw a picture. For younger children, illustrating the activities by drawing pictures with sidewalk chalk helps children have a resource to look at if they forget what’s next.

Why it helps:

At the root of attention is auditory processing–that is, the ability to listen to instruction, comprehend instructions and initiate a response based on those instructions. Following through with the tasks, sequencing the tasks and remembering the next step is based on a child’s ability to motor plan, or comprehend and complete a non-habitual series of actions. Motor-planning practice makes carrying out multi-step directions easier, resulting in improved attention.


Beach ball kick/foot fives from a swing: Get your child going on a swing and then move around to the front of the swing so that you are facing your child. If you have a beach ball, roll it toward your children as he swings and let him try to kick the ball. If you don’t have a ball, simply hold up your hand as a target and see if your child can “give you a five” with his foot.

Why it helps:

Swinging with a visual target encourages a child to maintain focus on a target while his body is moving, improving visual attention. Visual attention is important for focusing on reading, writing and understanding the social awareness of one’s surroundings. The movement component also improves motor-planning and the timing of the motor movements needed to help children learn to execute the verbal instructions.


Hard-work tasks: Here are some examples:

  • Wheel barrow walk. Hold your child’s knees or hips while her hands are on the ground of play surface. Have your child walk on her hands as you follow behind supporting her lower body. Travel around the play space or even climb up a set stairs at the playground!
  • Push-over. Work together to try to push over a play structure (without committing an act of vandalism, of course!).
  • Act like animals. Pretend to be different animals as you interact with the play structure–walk like a crab or a bear, hop like a frog, flap like a bird, etc.

Why it helps:

Hard work (or as therapists call it, proprioceptive input) is known to have a calming effect on children because it puts their bodies in a better state to attend afterwards. In modern society, children have decreased opportunities to receive this kind of input since children are no longer working on farms or even playing outside as much as children of earlier decades. So these days, the playground is a great place to encourage your child to “play hard”!





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