Since our Play & Learn Classes began in March, I've had several questions about what is appropriate for toddlers and pre-schoolers' attention spans. Today I'm going to try to address this question, but my answer won't be a clear and specific time frame per age.
When teaching kindergarten, I could say that 5-year-olds, for the most part, were capable of sitting and engaging in an adult selected activity for 15 minutes when allowed to participate in verbal and physical ways (passing a puppet, listening to others, clapping syllables, singing a song, etc.) Toddlers are harder to define for a variety of reasons.
Anytime we start discussing what is "typical" we have to remember skills are on a continuum. When you visit you pediatrician, s/he gives you a range of words your child should be saying, weight and height is on a percentile, and skills develop at ages that vary by several months. During early childhood, children are growing and changing at such a rapid speed that it is impossible to put milestones on an exact timeline for individuals.
Also, at the age of 3, a child's brain has formed twice as many connections as an adult's. Many of these synapses will be used or eliminated during the years of elementary school. Connections that are frequented more will strengthen and grow while other passageways will die away due to lack of use. So we have to remember that your toddler's mind is BUSY, just like their bodies. That's why adults are often exhausted while they run circles around us.
Lastly, aside from the variability of each child and the fast paced way that toddlers' minds work, we also have to factor in that each child is geared towards personal interests. What is rewarding to one might not be interesting to the next, just like with adults. E has the attention span to do multi-step arts and crafts, but isn't as likely to focus on building with blocks at this point. She will set up elaborate pretend homes and meals for several people (or dolls or animals) and assist you in cooking for much longer than she'll participate in gross motor activities. There is also variance in how long she'll dedicate to an activity on any given day. Bath time length changes day to day and lasts much longer if she has her Daddy with her because she didn't see him all day, versus Momma who is trying to fold laundry or reply to emails at the same time.
That last variable is a clue to what we can do when we want to engage our child's attention for longer periods of time. Children are naturally self directed, but if we are engaged with them, they will stay dedicated to an activity for longer. One goal at our Play & Learn classes is to communicate to parents how much their undivided attention, even for a short amount of time, leads to more intentional play and learning in their child's day.
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