Like me, I am sure that you have had some moments in the past few weeks to come to some realizations about yourself. I have realized that the reason I have not cleaned out the basement has nothing to do with time. I’m cleaning more than I ever have before, and I still don’t like it. And, I’ve realized being home with a little one all day when you can’t go to the park, or the pool, on playdates, or really even to the store with them is really hard. We have certainly gotten to know our kids in some new ways in the past few weeks. For some of you, you may have tapped into your inner Mary Poppins and you are in your happy place. For the rest of us, this is work.
As a preschool teacher one key to success in my classroom was to not only provide activities that had staying power, but to help children build their attention spans so that they were interested and engaged in play for long periods of time. If your child seems to be flitting from thing to thing, creating a path of destructing in his or her wake, there are some specific things you can do at home to build their attention muscle.
Children, by their nature have short attention spans. Experts say that you can expect a preschooler to give their attention to something based on their age times 1-5. So you can expect a 3 year old to actively engage in an activity for 3 to 15 minutes depending on how preferred the activity is. You may be thinking, but they can watch a screen for hours. Attending to a screen is not the same as attending to play. Television is all input and very passive. It does not require creativity, higher levels of thinking or problem solving. Video games on the other hand encourage short bursts of attention followed by a reward which gives the brain a quick dose of dopamine lighting up the reward centers of the brain. Neither of these two activities prepare children for the “dailyness” of life that requires repetitive practice and skill building with delayed reward. It is through old fashioned play that children learn to develop longer attention spans and problem solving skills.
There are some strategies available to help your child develop his or her ability to attend longer while playing and doing school work.
The first and most obvious tip is to make sure your child is well fed and rested. That might actually be easier to accomplish during this season of quarantine since schedules can be adjusted to fit their natural rhythms.
Second, while we have all laughed at the color coded quarantine schedule, there is a lot of value in a child having dependable routines. Our brains seek patterns and it feels safe to know what is next. In preschool we use visual schedules and charts for lots of activities so that children know what is coming next and what the expectation is. It was always amazing to me that children could sit for a few more minutes at circle because they knew what was left to do and when it was going to end. So, even if you are not driven by check boxes and time cards, create and post a simple schedule for the day so your children know what to expect.
Third, define what play looks like. If your child wanders from one activity to the next, offer limited options and set a timer during playtimes. In preschool we have centers that each of the children rotate through. They have time to explore and create within the parameters of that center. Instead of sending your child off to the playroom with no direction, split your playtime into specific chunks. For instance, create some times that are at the table, some floor time, some bedroom time. If a child was wandering and could not settle into an activity in the individual centers, we would often play with them for a few minutes asking questions and offering suggestions. Once they were engaged, we would set a timer for a few minutes and explain that we were going to attend to something else. We would watch them from a distance, redirecting and encouraging them back to the task at hand until the timer went off. More often than not, if we set a reasonable expectation, they were up to the task. We found that over time as they developed new interests and new strategies, they were able to self-regulate and stay interested in activities for longer periods of time.
Fourth, provide some activities that have a goal. Emptying the silverware tray in the dishwasher has a natural end where it is declared finished. Drawing a picture does not. Playing a game like Candyland has an end, but playing house doesn’t. Playing games is one of the best ways to encourage children to both focus and expand attention. Children must follow the rules, know whose turn it is, take his or her turn properly, etc. Finishing a task has an element of pride and persistence that encourages attention.
Finally, think in terms of “one more.” Whenever your child wants to stop doing an activity that they have only been at for a brief time, encourage them to do one more thing. They can add one more detail to a drawing, scoop out one more blob of cookie dough, add one more block to the tower, etc. This will slowly extend the time that they are attending to an activity as they baby step by just doing one more.
Building attention span in young children can be done in a playful and engaging ways that will have lasting benefits as your child enters their elementary school years. So get out the games and playdough, set a timer and play with purpose.