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Is This a Phase?
by Helen F. Neville, B.S., R.N.
Helen Neville

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Neville Is Succinct, Comprehensive in Her Books and Her Teaching

Why 4-year-olds Fib, Fight and Quibble
Be Realistic about a Child's Attention Span

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Be Realistic about a Child's Attention Span

Adapted from Is This A Phase: Child Development &
Parent Strategies, Birth to 6 Years,

by Helen Fowler Neville, B.S., R.N.
(Parenting Press, Fall 2007), ISBN 978-1-884734-63-2

Convinced your toddler's attention span is no more than a few seconds? Guess what: you're probably right.

Although your face might keep a baby interested for a couple of minutes, a toy or book may hold your toddler's attention for as little as 30 seconds. If you're playing with the toy together or helping your child "read" the book, expect two or three minutes before it's time for something new.

That's the advice from Helen Fowler Neville, a pediatric nurse and author of Is This a Phase? Child Development & Parent Strategies, Birth to 6 Years, who explains three components to attention span:

"Our ears, eyes, nose, and skin are always checking around to be sure we are safe," writes Neville. "Both babies and adults automatically turn to the sound of a crash or the bark of an unfamiliar dog."

Some of us quickly learn to ignore unimportant distractions. For others, what our senses report continues to interrupt what we're doing.

Our attention is also attracted—and held—by whatever interests us: food we want to eat, books we want to read, toys we want to play with. The length of a child's attention span depends on how interesting he finds the meal, the companions or the activity.

Finally, there are things we make ourselves pay attention to. We adults stick with tasks because we know we need to, or because other people ask us to: we read the same story again because our toddler wants to hear it, or we finish a dull report because the boss wants it done. Only gradually do children learn this self-discipline.

What does this mean about children's attention spans? It means parents need to be realistic about attention span and plan activities accordingly. It also means that we need to help children develop their attention spans: by playing with them, by attracting their attention to things we see or hear, by introducing them to new projects and sports, by helping them with challenging activities—and most of all, by turning off televisions, computers and electronic games.

Typical Attention Span by Age
AgeActivityHow Can We Help?
2 to 7 mo. A baby may watch someone, copy expressions, and trade sounds for as long as 2-3 minutes at 2 months. By 7 months, this typically continues for at least 5 minutes. Take turns leading and following. Be warm, interested, and interesting to look at. Let babies rest when they turn away.
18 mo. Alone, a toddler may spend 30 seconds on a single activity or a minute or two on several activities before seeking the caregiver's attention. Keep adult expectations realistic.
2 yr. Alone, a 2-year-old may spend 30-60 seconds on a single activity; with an adult's active encouragement, 2-3 minutes By playing with toddlers or talking about their activities, adults can increase children's attention spans. Point out characteristics of whatever they are playing with: "Do you see the black dot on it?" "Will it fit in the cup?" "Can you push it over here?"
2½ yr.

Alone, the toddler may spend about 2 minutes on a single activity. The usual preference: for almost constant attention from an adult.

With or near a small group of children, a toddler may play peacefully for 10 minutes.

3 yr. A preschooler working alone may spend 3-8 minutes on an interesting activity and may finish it if it's easy. Look for ways to keep preschoolers interested in the activities they start. Encourage and follow their interests. Avoid distracting them or taking over the activities.
3½ yr. Working alone, a preschooler can stay busy for 15 minutes if there are a variety of interesting choices.
4 yr.

By 4, a child engrossed in an activity may ignore distractions such as the call to dinner.

Alone, the 4-year-old may spend 7-8 minutes on a single activity, or as much as 15 minutes if the activity is new and especially interesting (an eye exam, for example).

With a small group, a 4-year-old may spend 5-10 minutes playing without interruption.

Four-year-olds understand it is harderto pay attention to uninteresting tasks, or when distracted by noise or their own thoughts. They are more likely to stay interested when they're comfortable with the task or project and feel successful. They may need help to meet their standards. Adults can also keep children interested in projects with impromptu games and humor.
4½ yr. Working alone, the pre-kindergartener may spend 2-3 minutes on a task chosen by an adult such as getting dressed or picking up toys.
5 yr. By 5, most children can ignore minor distractions. Alone, they will focus on a single interesting activity for 10 or 15 minutes and on an assigned task for 4-6 minutes if it's easy and interesting. A small group of children can work or play together without interruption for 10-25 minutes. Recognize that personal interest remains the most important motivation for 5-year-olds. It will double the length of their attention span.
6 yr. Working alone on a single activity, a 6-year-old may stay interested for as much as 30 minutes. Continue to build on children's interests and stay alert to difficult tasks, so that you can help.
Compiled from multiple sources by Helen F. Neville
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