Text copyright © Katie Mohar. All rights reserved.
Many children struggle with focus, patience and attention. This struggle plays a direct role in a related challenge: reading. Today, I’ll share ways to increase a child’s attention span (and desire to read!) with help from owls.
Owls delight children in literature, movies and nature. Parents and teachers can leverage quiet, persistent birds to inspire the same qualities in children – while motivating kids to “swoop in” and achieve big goals.
How Owls Hunt is How Kids Successfully Read
Reading requires focus, attention and patience. Unfortunately, the same device kids use to access e-books and homework often contains tantalizing distractions like games, music, videos and messaging.
Our habits define us. What begins as a “quick peek” at a video or “just one more round” of a silly game becomes a habit that’s hard to break. Many children thus habituate themselves to expect immediate results, achievement and answers with a swipe of their finger.
Olympic medalists inspire kids to pursue sports with flashy tricks and dazzling medals – but kids don’t see the daily habits of sacrifice, exercise and focus multiplied over many years. Kids see the result. And they want that result. Nice and quick. This mentality results in giving up, disappointment or burnout.
Owls help kids visualize the need for patience in achieving goals – whether the goal is finishing a chapter book or learning a sport. Owls instinctively know that seemingly mundane, repetitive habits yield success. No matter how hungry an owl may be, it must wait quietly for a critter to appear. There’s no fly-through fast food in the wild.
Authors bring readers on a metaphorical “hunt.” Like an owl waiting for a meal to cross its path, a young reader will experience excitement while patiently following along in a book’s adventure.
Simple Ways to Help Kids Develop Patience as Readers:
1.) Have a set reading practice schedule.
Just as athletes and musicians practice regularly, beginning readers need practice – ideally five days a week. Set small, achievable goals for your child – even if it’s reading one paragraph a day. Eventually, increase your child to one page and then to one chapter a day.
Or, set a timer and have your child read as much as they can for 5 minutes a day. Increase the daily time by increments of 3-5 minutes a week, depending on a child’s individual baseline. If they struggle to read alone, have them read with you. Track their progress to show them how they are improving. Express excitement when they progress. Eventually, they’ll be reading longer and enjoying reading more too!
2.) Stories are adventures. Explain to children that adventures take time to appreciate.
If we get to the end of an enjoyable book too quickly, we feel disappointed and wish for more.
Children enjoy movies longer than five minutes. Likewise, kids can be taught to appreciate that a book is a way of conveying a story even more deeply than a movie – and they won’t be able to enjoy the adventure without putting in some time.
3.) Read books about owls, then show your children owls in real life.
Owls are visual “role models” of patience that help children see value in waiting – even when they feel like rushing. (Keep reading this post for specific book and activity recommendations below!)
4.) Owls won’t automatically make a child patient.
Owls can inspire children – and help kids visualize a complex concept like patience. Plus, activities that get a child out in nature or reading books rather than scrolling and texting are major wins.
Like skiing, skating or snowboarding—reading is a skill that requires persistence over days, months and years. Gaining patience will naturally increase your child’s attention span – or ability to focus for longer periods.
Owl Facts for Kids:
Kids love owls. Owls play star roles in popular children’s books and movies so kids are familiar with owls and associate them with magic, mystery and fantasy. Take advantage of this fact to help kids emulate the patience, focus and persistence of these majestic birds.
Test your child’s owl knowledge by asking these questions. You’ll really ruffle their feathers!
1.) How many small critters does the average owl need to eat every night? Answer: Four.
2.) What’s the primary action an owl takes while hunting?: Answer: None. Owls are known to spend hours waiting quietly using their extraordinary senses of sight and hearing to detect a critter like a mouse or vole.
3.) Do owls build nests? Answer: No. Instead of building nests, owls roost in cozy cavities like barns or hollow trees. They are known to reuse nests of other large birds. The burrowing owl lives in earthen tunnels it digs with its own lanky legs—or reuses burrows built by pocket gophers, armadillos, prairie dogs and skunks.
4.) What is an owl’s superpower? Answer: Patience. Like a human child learning to read, and owl hunting for dinner has few quick or easy options. An owl relies on patience for survival in the wild.
“Patience is power. Patience is not an absence of action; rather it is ‘timing’ it waits on the right time to act, for the right principles and in the right way.”― Fulton J. Sheen
Observe Owls and Increase a Child’s Attention Span
Now that you know why owls make excellent role models for children, here’s some fun suggestions to introduce kids to owl behavior:
- Visit a zoo or owl center. Try to find owl exhibits offering educational activities for families. Do a simple Google search for the nearest zoo or bird center with owls near you. For example, the International Owl Center in Houston, MN leads educational “Owl Prowls.”
- Before visiting, read about owls with your children. Then, after they’ve seen some owls in real life, ask your child to recall what they’ve learned by giving you a brief oral report. Could they identify an owl in the wild? This process will reinforce their learning.
- Audubon’s Guide to Finding Urban Owls is a fantastic resource for spotting five species of owls throughout America (Western Screech, Eastern Screech, Snowy, Great Horned and Short-eared).
- Watch Cornell’s Bird Cam. Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Bird Cam showcases birds – including owls – raising their young. Here, Cornell’s camera captures a Great Horned owlet’s first break or “pip” from its shell!
- Read children’s science books about owls. Your local bookstore and library are full of educational books about owls written specifically for kids. Three that I recommend: Owls by Gail Gibbons, Twelve Owls by Laura Erickson; illustrated by Betsy Bowen, and Moonlight Animals by Elizabeth Golding; illustrated by Ali Lodge.
- Observe eagles and hawks. No owls nearby? No problem. Eagles and hawks also depend on patience to thrive. Many states have family-oriented exhibits featuring these large birds. For instance, the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, MN offers families access to resident golden and bald eagles.
Stuck at home? The live eagle camera operated by Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources features eagles in the wild. Watching eagle parents brave long days of snow, wind and hunger while incubating eggs in massive nests will inspire patience in anyone!
- Use an owl guide. If your family gets serious about spotting evasive owls, like the great gray owl, you may consider giving your family the gift of a day with a professional birder. For example, bird enthusiasts across the globe trek to the 300-square-mile Sax-Zim Bog every winter for a chance to spot one of the world’s largest owls. Often, they employ local guides. Great gray owls have wingspans of up to five feet and stand almost three feet tall!
Owls are difficult to spot, so trained ears and eyes have an advantage. Credible guides are familiar with a bird’s territories and know how to admire owls without disturbing these territories. An experience like this will also teach a child patience since there can be significant waiting involved and sometimes a full day passes without spotting an owl.
Owls in Children’s Classic Literature:
- Kids get a hoot out of A. A. Milne’s persnickety “Owl” in the Winnie-the-Pooh tales. Milne’s Owl is wise and pedantic—despite being an atrocious speller. Owl lives in a tree with a handwritten sign on his door knocker: “PLES RING IF AN RNSER IS REQIRD.”
- J. K. Rowling’s snowy owl “Hedwig” is the beloved pet that Rowling’s protagonist, Harry Potter, receives on his 11th birthday. Hedwig is smart, swift and spunky—faithfully delivering messages between Harry and friends. She’s also Harry’s comfort in times of loneliness and loss.
- The Owl and the Pussy-cat is a delightful lyrical children’s poem by Edward Lear, illustrated by Charlotte Voake. As a little girl, this rhyming book captivated me. It’s a fanciful adventure of two animals taking a starlit row in a pea-green boat to the strum of Owl’s soft guitar.
- Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin features a rambunctious red squirrel who visits Owl Island and pushes Old Brown owl to the limits of his patience. Children will laugh at Nutkin’s “naughtiness” without missing the tale’s powerful lessons in respect, kindness, industriousness and gratitude.
Stories can be tough to finish. How many times do we start a book but never finish? Often the middle of a story is the most difficult for a reader to complete because it contains to most mundane occurrences. Children need to learn that without a middle, there would be no story. The middle of a book contains valuable information that helps a reader appreciate the exciting climax.
Owls Well that Ends Well
Owls and other large birds of prey would literally die without patience. A tasty treat won’t appear if an owl merely taps its talons or hoots a tantrum. Encourage your child to learn quiet patience from owls so they can succeed in achieving goals that require high levels of focus—from reading books to playing sports to learning music to becoming fluent in a second language.
Remember, children need to know that reading is an adventure that’s just as thrilling and full of anticipation as an owl on the hunt.
Grab your binoculars and lace those hiking boots! Let’s find some owls who can help increase your child’s attention span!
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