One of the foundational principles of the Montessori approach to supporting child development is an emphasis on concentration. When Dr. Maria Montessori developed her work over a hundred years ago, she observed in the tiny child an ability to focus on meaningful work, and then she observed the incredible positive benefits that followed this period of concentration. Children became peaceful, joyful, and capable of self-regulation. It was through these repeated experiences that she came to declare that concentration was a key part of supporting children in their most positive development. This means that, today, it is beneficial for children, even babies, to engage in activities that allow them to concentrate, so that they can bring about these positive effects in their interior life.
As parents seek these kinds of activities, they often see their children watching screens and ask whether this is an activity that supports concentration. It is easy to understand why this is such a natural question! When your little one is watching a screen, they usually can hold still for a long period of time, they keep their eyes fixed on the entertainment, and they are not easily distracted. In many ways, these are visible qualities of concentration.
However, it is important to note that, while this experience can look like concentration to an outside observer, it is not the same interior experience for your little one. When your child is focusing on a screen, they are being entertained. They are being occupied from an outside source that does not require any engagement on their part. A baby or child who is looking at a screen is passively consuming content. Similarly, your little one rarely will reveal the same positive development characteristics after spending time on the screen. Rather than joyful, peaceful, confident, and capable of self-regulation, you may observe that they are tired, cranky, and have trouble controlling themselves. This is another indicator that screens create a different experience from true concentration.
True concentration is different because it requires your child to be a willing participant in the activity. From this perspective, your little one must act, engage, move, and think in order for concentration to arise. When a child focuses in this way, their bodies and mind operate in harmony – both are active and alert. A concentrating child may hold still while they are thinking, but they probably will be moving some part of their body. If they are a tiny baby, they may only be moving their eyes as they focus on a mobile.
Older babies and toddlers will move their bodies and their hands as the activity requires. In this light, concentration means that their whole body and mind will be focused and working together towards the purpose of one task.
Supporting Dr. Montessori’s theory of concentration, many psychologists and educators refer to this experience as “flow” – the state that Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi observed in people when they were wholly consumed with an activity.
Flow is related to many desirable outcomes of positive psychology – joy, peace, and meaning. It requires the right match of skill level and challenge, which means that your little one must be an active participant in the activity, and not simply a passive recipient.
Another way to consider the idea of concentration is to ask yourself, “Who is working harder, my child or their toy?” Screens, as well as toys requiring batteries, are working hard! This is a sign that your little one is not working as hard as whatever it is that they are paying attention to. Toys that require imagination, creativity, and movement of hand and body all require that your child does work. It is through this active work that your little one will have the experience of concentrating, and, thus, developing themselves.
Just as Dr. Montessori did, one of your best tools in determining if your baby is concentrating will be using observation. You can consider whether they are consuming or acting, you can watch what parts of their bodies and minds they are using for their activities, and you can observe how they behave afterwards.
By finding opportunities for your baby or toddler to concentrate, you are supporting them in their development in the most positive way possible!