We don't think twice about interrupting infants and toddlers, mostly because we don't think to value what they are doing.
At the same time, we want our children to be learners and achievers. We want them to be able to listen patiently in the classroom and have the tenacity to solve difficult problems and pursue their dreams. We want ‘paying attention' to come naturally and learning skills to come joyfully and easily.
The first years of life are formative for developing focus and concentration. Here are 7 ways to foster a long attention span:
1) Minimal entertainment and stimulation. Babies are creatures of habit and can become accustomed to expect entertainment rather than doing what comes naturally — occupying themselves with their surroundings. Constant stimulation leads to an exhausted parent and an easily bored, over-stimulated child.
Infant expert Magda Gerber taught that babies do not naturally become bored. Parents do. Babies are entranced by the way their bodies can move and the sights, sounds, smells, nooks and crannies of life that we adults take for granted. They need uninterrupted time to experience those things and assimilate them.
2) No TV or videos for the first two years. TV and videos are the most drastic way to undermine your child's developing attention span because they engage and overwhelm a child's attention rather than encouraging the child to actively flex his focus muscle. Imagine the powerful pull of the TV screen in a restaurant. You can be sitting with the most fascinating people in the world, and still you find your eyes drawn to the damn TV. (For an in-depth study on the TV issue, I highly recommend Endangered Minds: Why Children Don't Think - And What We Can Do About It by Jane M. Healy, Ph.D.)
3) A safe, cozy "Yes" place. In order to remain occupied for extended periods of time, a baby must have a safe place. This can begin with a bassinet or crib, and grow with the baby to be a playpen, and finally a cordoned-off or gated play area. A too large area where there are unsafe objects available to a child is not the relaxed environment the baby needs for extensive concentration. Babies cannot play for long periods of time when they are distracted by the tension of parents worried about safety and the interruption of "No's".
4) Simple, open-ended toys and objects. Unless distracted, babies are inclined to examine every inch of a simple object, like the pattern on a cloth napkin, and then experiment; i.e. wave it, mouth it, place it over their faces, and scrunch it into a ball.
They are apt to tire of or become over-stimulated by objects that they either cannot comprehend (like rattles and other mysterious noisemakers) or toys that they passively watch, listen to, and have a single function -- like musical mobiles or wind-up toys. Those toys grab the child's attention rather than strengthening his ability to actively focus and investigate, similar to the way TV and videos do.
5) Observe (and don't interrupt). Observing the way our babies choose to spend their time makes us realize that they are not just lying there, but actually doing something. That something might be gazing towards a window, at the ceiling fan, or grasping at dust particles in the sunlight.
Janet is a parenting expert specializing in infant/toddler care. She is an author, teacher, lecturer and longtime board member of Resources for Infant Educators (RIE). You can read more about the RIE philosophy and practice of 'Educaring' at JanetLansbury.com.