Preschool Attention Span - It’s Short and Not Always Sweet

21 December 2016


When were began to talk about Skilly-do with preschool parents, many of them mentioned attention span as one of the greatest challenges they have interacting with their child.  I’d like to talk about this problem and share some ideas on how to deal with it in a developmentally appropriate way.

By definition, attention span is the length of a child’s interest in any given activity or event. A general rule to remember on the length of a child’s attention span is this: The younger the child, the shorter the attention span. This is, obviously, something that most preschool parents know very well.

It is not unusual for toddlers and two-year-olds to have a maximum attention span of 2-3 minutes on average. Attention span gradually increases as a child gets older, and a child of 6 can be expected to attend for an average of 15 minutes or longer. I often advise parents to  consider the age of the child and that is probably the average minutes of attention span for that child. That is, two minutes for a 2-year-old, 3 for a three-year-old, and so forth.  There will be times when it is longer or shorter.  If a child is totally into a particular toy, like blocks, they may attend longer when playing with this toy.  Obviously, then, tying activities into favorite toys helps develop a child’s attention span.

Too often parents expect a longer attention span than is really possible simply because the  child maintains the appearance of attention.  More often than not, however, young children make it quite obvious when their attention span is waning-- by a yawn, a turned head, excess wiggling, or by physically leaving--giving clear signs that attention is “turned off.”

I remember how frustrating it is to deal with short attention spans both as a parent and a teacher.  In both of these roles, I tried to use what I knew developmentally about the child and use that to address this issue.  For example, when I worked in Head Start, I had a group of energetic two-year-olds who were typical, healthy, active two’s and thus, I knew, distractible.  I tried to use this developmental characteristic to my advantage when their attention was waning. So when we were making Readymade Styrofoam Sculptures and the toothpicks became more fun for them than the activity, I switched gears and had them glue toothpicks onto construction paper.  They were fascinated with this and it kept their attention longer than I had expected.  Because I knew they were typical two’s, I planned an alternate activity just in case their attention waned-- which it did.  And because they obviously liked the toothpicks, I capitalized on that and made that material the focus of the activity.

I would strongly suggest that when you are planning to use any of our Skilly-do activities have another activity as a back-up. Or plan to have some new materials on hand to distract or interest the child if attention wanes.

Sometimes introducing new materials is all that is needed to perk up the child’s attention. I found this to be the case with my 3-½-year-old great granddaughter In her most recent “sleepover.”  I knew that she loves to play with water, and that developmentally as a three-year-old, she was learning to manipulate objects with levers. So, I added a plastic trigger spray bottle filled with water to her bath toys as a new way to play with water. She spent almost 45 minutes in the bath, spraying all her toys and everything in the tub and surrounding walls with water. Just like all young children, she loved practicing her growing small motor skills, squeezing the lever over and over, seeing the water spray in all directions.   

The point is that by changing activities or materials to keep them matched to your child’s present interests and developmental level, you are helping children grow their attention span naturally. If things are interesting to them and meet their developmental level, they will attend longer on their own. This is the way attention span grows.

So remember these 5 tips for dealing with very young children's short attention span:

  1. Be realistic.  Don’t expect an attention span much longer than your child’s age.
  2. Take time to learn about your child's developmental milestones. Check out our Child Developmental Guide to find out what developmental skills you can focus on with your child.
  3. Focus on favorites.  If your child loves blocks, center activities around them to encourage a longer attention span. If you child loves crayons and painting, try some of the different painting techniques in our Beyond the Fridge collection. If your child loves to construct things, check out the activities in our Construction activity collection.  
  4. Be flexible.  When the activity you planned isn’t grabbing your child’s attention, alter it, or use the materials in another way.
  5. Have a backup activity or two in case your first activity doesn’t keep your child’s attention.

Young children are never bored using the same materials over and over again if they have new, interesting, and exciting ideas, thoughts, and feelings to express. We believe that you will find an expression of all of these in our Skilly-do activities. 

Which of our activities kept your child’s attention longest?  We’d love to hear about it. You can let us know your feedback right here!