Toddlers very much live in the “here and now,” which is an admirable quality in many ways. This means when you are cuddling in the glider with your little one – they are completely present with you.
The “here and now” mentality also accounts for their unparalleled ability to love unconditionally. This stems from a toddlers instinct to quickly forget and forgive offenses. Toddlers are also very curious about the world and have limited ability to tune out stimuli from their environment. This curiosity facilitates the rapid learning that is so critical at this age.
However, living in the moment and abundant curiosity can negatively impact an increase attention span in toddlers. Toddlers’ attention is often fleeting, jumping from the task at hand to the most recently occurring stimuli.
When engaging in independent play, children have a tendency to give the most sustained, longest attention to preferred activities. While independent play is a terrific skill and extremely valuable for learning and self-regulation, it is important to develop the ability to attend to a variety of activities.
A steady attention span is a foundation for learning, building life skills, and preparing your toddler for group learning environments.
It is important to remember that the ability to increase attention span is like a muscle: it must be stretched and exercised to be strengthened.
You can help increase attention span in our toddler by providing them with the right framework. It is most effective to work one-on-one with your toddler – you are more able to facilitate the “stretching” and “strengthening.”
Just like we can benefit from a personal trainer or fitness coach to push us a little further, we can be that motivator for our toddlers.
Activities should be motivating and have the capacity to be expanded upon. Most activities can be expanded or altered to keep it interesting. Remember to be silly and creative!
How to select and engage in appropriate activities to increase attention span:
Observe your toddler’s play and notice what they show the most interest in
Do they play with the box of colorful scarves long enough for you to put on your make-up?
If so, this would be a wonderful activity to use for “exercise.” Play with your child and the scarves, first following their lead by joining in and imitating their actions.
If you sense your child is starting to lose interest (and ideally, just before this happens), model a new way to play with the scarves, such as stuffing them in a box or wrapping up a baby doll.
Choose an activity that is age-appropriate
Your child is most likely to engage in a task that is a “just right challenge.” This means they are able to be successful in the task on their own or only with slight assistance.
This will prevent frustration or feeling discouraged. While these are important emotions to experience and work through, they can be prohibitive to attention span.
Look for activities that are novel
Sometimes the most random items can be the most engaging. Office supplies such as paper clips, kitchen utensils, all work wonderfully.
Commit to being fully present with your toddler
As an adult with a thousand things on the “to-do” lists, being fully present is a task.
Stay in tune with your toddler’s activity – when we become distracted, that gives a quick cue to our toddler to shift their attention, as well.
Encourage them to complete one more repetition
The “stretching” of the attention span muscle hinges on the ability to increase time on an activity. Once your child communicates they are done, encourage them to complete just one more repetition.
For example, “One more puzzle piece, then all done,” or “One more minute of coloring, then all done.” This begins to increase attention span in small increments.
3 activities to increase attention span with your toddler
- Kitchen tasks – such as a simple snack preparation (i.e. peanut butter toast or compiling your own snack mix).Toddlers are often motivated by participating in a “grown-up” task, and there is the intrinsic motivation of a snack at the end!
- Extend story time – When reading a favorite book with your toddler, extend the book slightly. This can be done by asking them to point out certain objects or create additional storylines.This will help increase their attention span through a familiar, motivating activity.
- Keep them seated – Have your toddler complete a fine motor or messy play activity while seated. At the table with a booster seat or in their high chair is ideal. If outside, use a chair that is their size.
The goal isn’t to “trap” them, but rather, being seated helps them focus on the task at hand with less temptation to get up and be physically distracted from the task.
Perfect activities for this type of activity include play dough, shaving cream, sticking pipe cleaners in a colander, beading (pipe cleaners work great for beginners), or stamps.
By spending quality, one-on-one time engaging in activities with your toddler, you can help stretch and strengthen their attention spans.
Celebrate every small victory, such as their willingness to match one more shape before calling it quits. With some practice, you will soon find your toddler attending to a wider range of activities for longer stretches of time!
Feature image photo credit: @bianca.ashby