Connecting Activities: Joint Attention through a Nurture Science Lens

Together, our routine tasks and milestone celebrations become more memorable, enjoyable, and enriching.

It is incredibly rewarding to engage in activities together, whether it’s playing a team sport, going to the park for a picnic with friends, or cooking with our families. Together, our routine tasks and milestone celebrations become more memorable, enjoyable, and enriching. 

Yet, you can feel the difference between someone just going along with an activity you’ve chosen, versus whole-heartedly joining you in it. This is especially true with children. You can sense their attention wandering, their feet dragging, their complaints growing, and soon your own anxiety starts to skyrocket. The activity was supposed to be enjoyable, something to share with each other, and suddenly it’s another chore to get through, hopefully without fights, demands, or negotiating. 

Throughout our connecting activities series, the Nurture Science Program has provided a new perspective on what are frequently called “joint attention activities.” In early childhood development, joint attention refers to two people being able to focus their attention on a shared object or task. Often, this diagnostic and treatment tool is used to identify children who struggle with socioemotional and behavioral problems. 

Through our lens of emotional connection, the behaviors of successful joint attention are actually byproducts of a deeper experience. So rather than focus on the behaviors themselves, we know that when we foster a state of body-to-body emotional connection, joint attention can follow organically. 

In other words: you can work to have joint attention even in the absence of emotional connection. But if you have emotional connection, both connected people want to engage in joint attention activities. By focusing on what is underneath, the behaviors, health benefits, and relationship can work together to make joint activities joyful, and set you and your children up for health, wellbeing, and developmental success. 

That’s because there’s a mechanism built into our bodies that helps each other’s nervous systems calm down. And we want our nervous systems to be calm most of our waking and sleeping lives, so our bodies can perform functions that are vital for long-term health. The reason this mechanism supports joint attention so beautifully is that you can’t activate it on your own; it is activated by connecting with another person. That is why we call it autonomic co-regulation. 

In order to jumpstart the process of co-regulation, we communicate emotionally with someone we love (a partner, parent, grandparent, child, sibling, friend), while engaging as many of our five senses as possible (loving touch, listening, talking, making eye contact, sharing food, etc). When this sensory-emotional engagement is reciprocal, our autonomic nervous systems calm each other down. 

Co-regulation not only feels good, it also elevates our mood, and taps into an impressive number of our body’s essential systems: it stabilizes blood pressure and blood sugar, boosts immunity, aids in digestion, and improves memory, sleep, anxiety, depression, and behavioral issues. This combined sensory and emotional approach has also been shown to improve brain activity and development in babies, and significantly increase physiological regulation (lower cardiac risk) and stress resilience in both the children and their parents. 

But for most of us, life doesn’t allow for gazing into each other’s eyes and cuddling all day. We’re busy, tired, and stressed. And even though it combats the effects of stress, carving out time to practice autonomic emotional connection can sometimes feel like one more task to check off the list. But you can incorporate the practice into many activities you already do every day—cooking, sharing a meal, playing a game, housework, doing the dishes, bedtime, bathtime, storytime—and nurture whole-family health in the process.

How Can I Bring Body-to-Body Emotional Connection into My Life and Routines?

  • Joint attention activities can be a wonderful way to repair a relationship after a disruption—whether that was a disagreement with your spouse, your child threw a tantrum, or an email upset you. Pitch in with whatever the other person is doing (cooking, dishes, laundry). This helps them appreciate you, which activates the positive reward cycle and puts you back in sync.
  • If your child struggles with parts of their routine (like leaving for school or going to bed), connect beforehand to smooth those transitions: hug, tell them you love them, let their body and emotions calm, and then try easing into the next activity. (This approach helps with tantrums, too.)
  • Use mealtimes as opportunities to have meaningful conversations. Savor the flavors and aromas, and share any memories or emotions you may have about a particular dish.
  • Do household tasks (chores, cooking, etc.) together—make them into games, or use the task as a chance to work together, which can help create a positive space for deep conversation.
  • There are so many senses built into bath time, so explore them! Be silly together, then wrap your little one in a snuggly towel and try to stay emotionally connected as you transition to bedtime.
  • During storytime, cuddle your child while you read. Facing your bodies toward each other lets you see each other’s facial expressions, which is even more important than looking at the pages. 
  • If you’re going to be traveling, build up resilience to the coming disruptions by starting with connection: hug, snuggle, do a relaxing activity together, share a yummy snack. 
  • Then, when you’re on the go, find ways to re-establish that connection: hold hands, make lots of eye contact, read or tell stories, make up jokes (laughter is great for co-regulation), sit together in the backseat, put a gentle hand on your child’s tummy and breathe or sing together. 

We spend much of our lives alone and lonely, sometimes even in the company of our community. But with a little intention, we can bring the benefits of co-regulation into the everyday by putting our whole-body joint attention into joint activities. When life gets hard, we can use this practice to guide our bodies and minds back to a state of deep connection with people we love.