How To Increase Your Toddler’s Attention Span (Yeah, right!)

If you’re a toddler mom, tell me you haven’t experienced this before and I’ll tell you you’re lying:

In a moment of feeling bold, you decide to peruse Pinterest to find the perfect craft for your toddler(s). You start by selecting a cute and polished paper-plate pig that involves pink paint, a pom-pom nose, googly eyes, and some construction paper. You think, “Easy enough!” So next, you head to Amazon to buy the materials you don’t have hanging around the house. The next day, the materials have arrived so you spend all of nap time prepping…portion sizes of pink paint distributed into containers for each kid, old table cloths or newspaper taped to the tables, googly eyes laid out for selection, paper plates pre-cut to match the shape you’re looking for, construction paper pre-cut to the needed shapes. The kids are up and they are super amped for the craft of the day. They sit down at the craft table and before you can blink, there’s pink paint on the windows, pig ears glued where their butts should be (if glued at all!), and ten million googly eyes covering one pig (Guys, pigs only have two eyes, remember?). It’s one of those real Instagram vs. reality moments. There are two types of mom responses here. Either you give up on your Pinterest perfect dreams right then and there and live in the moment of chaos, OR you tell the kids to go find something to do while you finish/fix the paper plate pigs yourself. And then you hang them up on the kids art wall as if the kids actually made them themselves. Oy vey.

Ok so, moral of the story…how do you get a toddler to actually have enough attention span and motivation to do something without it (a) turning into complete and total chaos and (b) entertaining them for all of 5 seconds before they’re on to the next best thing?

Here’s where my professional expertise comes in:

The *fake* answer, but definitely grounded in lots of research and development theory: engagement through motivation and developmental appropriateness. Motivation for a toddler is usually extrinsic…i.e. is the activity or materials you are using new and novel, and bright and shiny? Seriously, think about a kid in a candy shop, or a toy store for that matter. Bright, shiny, new – we definitely don’t have it already. This triggers curiosity and desire, which is step 1 for attention spans and motivation. Developmental appropriateness is huge for toddlers too…i.e. is the activity doable for the toddler? They haven’t yet developed the idea of persistence or growth mindset, so if something is judged as too hard or they get frustrated, they’ll give right up. Let me tell you, those Pinterest perfect crafts are almost always NOT DOABLE for toddlers…show me a 3 year old’s perfect fingerprint tree that looks exactly like the model picture…you can’t!

Here’s where my mom-pertise comes in:

The *real* answer, grounded in lots of trial and error with my own kids as guinea pigs: You can’t and you don’t! A colleague once told me multiply your child’s age by two, and that’s the number of minutes your child can attend to one activity at a time. So if your kid is 2, that’s 4 minutes of attention per activity; if your kid is 4, that’s 8 minutes of attention per activity. I have no idea if this is accurate or not, but it made sense to me, and I’d even go so far as to say some days that mathematical formula is even pushing it. So the best way of getting around it is by adjusting YOUR expectations for their attention spans, not trying to actually change theirs. Avoid big elaborate activities, or at least don’t have such high expectations for yourself that the water park you set up outside (water table, sprinkler, baby pool, slip and slide) will entertain the toddler for the entire afternoon. Because guess what? It won’t!

Soooo, what does that mean? You’re telling me there’s no hope? Negative, there is hope. Just re-adjust your approach and you won’t be disappointed. If you need to kill time at home and want to provide activities for your toddler outside the regular free play, select a small amount of time, and plan lots of tiny, easily-preparable activities for that small amount of time.

In the dog days of the pandemic when school was still in session but kids were home and parents tasked with schooling (or if they are elementary-aged, parents supporting/teaching schooling), I’d pick 1 hour per day as “school time”. But during that hour we’d do about 5-7 different things. We ALWAYS did morning “circle” songs, calendar, and read-aloud; those are non-negotiable. As for the rest…Sometimes I’d have themed activities around a “material of the day”. So if play-doh was the material of the day, we’d write with play-doh, do math with play-doh, do sensory and scissor skills with play-doh, make a craft with play-doh, etc. Or sometimes I’d just have all different small activities related to literacy, numeracy, fine-motor, and problem-solving skills that had no theme at all but introduced new materials that the kids don’t typically have free access to in the playroom. I’ll be showcasing what some of these days looked like more in upcoming blog posts, but just for reference all of the photos in the tile gallery at the beginning of this post are activities we did during one of our first days of “School at Home”, as Luca likes to call it.

[Bare with me as I start to move all my instagram highlight reels over to the blog…]

Tile gallery image caption, from left to right: (1) Name rockets – a fun way for kids to practice writing or making their name. My 2 year old got his name letters pre-written and he just had to put them in order, whereas my 4 year old had to pick blank squares and write each letter on a square. (2) Counting jellyfish – I prepped this while they were doing their name rockets. My 2 year old just had to work on beading each pipe cleaner, which requires a lot of attention to fine motor skills. My 4 year old had to count, recognize numbers, and practice 1:1 correspondence by making sure the number of beads on the pipe cleaner matched the number written above. (3) Mystery book buddies – I would arrange a facetime call with a friend or family member, and the kids would get to pick books to “read” aloud to their mystery book buddy on facetime. Their friend or family member also got to “read” to my kids. Even though they weren’t actually reading any of the words (or if they were, it was from memory, not true decoding skills), they were practicing story structure or reading the pictures and this is a huge step in language development. Not to mention continuing to develop their love of reading. (4) Scientific drawings of things found outside – A great way to encourage pre-writing (that stage before kids actually write letters and words to make sentences) is to encourage drawing and labeling. One way to do this is to find things outside and accurately draw them and label the parts. This helps kids start to understand that writing represents something (i.e. has a message), and once ‘written’ the message doesn’t change.

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