Friday, 29 January 2010

Pay attention!

Concentration ain't what it used to be. Not for children anyway. In fact, if you believe some people the attention span of children is now half the length it used to be.


As a teacher, every year I'd spend time being re-trained to deliver my lessons in ever-smaller, snack-size chunks. The average attention span is thought to be a child's age plus one year (in minutes). So an 11 year-old will, on average, be able to pay attention for no longer than 12 minutes. Of course, this doesn't mean they give a task their undivided attention for that long. It takes a special kind of person (like a Buddhist monk) to do that. What it does mean is that - day-dreams, starings into space, head-scratchings and so on apart - 11 year olds are seldom expected, under the National Strategy, to engage in any learning activity which extends beyond twelve minutes.


Personally, I've always found this somewhat counter-intuitive. Don't get me wrong. I'm all for using each and every one of the many fascinating discoveries about learning and behaviour that are now available. And it's astonishing - but true - that most of what we now know about the way children learn has only been discovered in the last fifteen years.


But it hasn't always been the case that kids can only concentrate for that long. And if that's all that's expected of them, how does their attention span develop?


Of course, there are any number of theories to explain the so-called decline in the attention span: too much TV (in Australia they're even passing laws to limit how much telly kids can watch); video games; late bedtimes; a lack of fish-oil in the diet and too many chips.


But I've another one. It's this. Having spent countless Wednesday mornings deep in empirical observation at the local toddler-group, I've come to the following conclusion. It's not TV or the PC or children's diet that's to blame: it's toys. Specifically, the quantity of toys. I would postulate (if I could be so inclined) that a child's concentration develops in inverse proportion to the number of toys they have at their disposal.


On Wednesday mornings, in a large church hall packed to the gills with all kinds of toys, Charlie flits about from one thing to another like a butterfly. He can't sit still. He rarely plays with anything for more than a few seconds. And I know, he's only two, so I can't expect him to sit down for an hour and read Shakespeare. But he CAN concentrate. And does. At home he's absorbed sometimes for ages with a single toy. He plays elaborate games that go on for half an hour. Or, used to. Before Christmas. And before his birthday. Since then, of course, he's had so many toys that Wednesday morning syndrome has become a regular occurrence. 


There's only one thing for it. I'm going to have to hide most of them. To be honest, he's played with most of them them so little that they'd not be missed. And I could bring them out again from time to time when he gets bored. Just as long as I don't hide the bin-men. 






Delicate manouevre,  parking bin-lorries. Needs a lot of practice. And all that emptying... it takes a lot of concentration.

47 comments:

  1. I think you're on to something. Now the trick is to convince the grandparents who think that love is bestowed upon children through toys.

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  2. I think you could be on to something... But my two will search through mountains of toys to get to one special toy which they will then happily play with for what seems like hours on end!

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  3. Totally right - it was the same at our playgroup, kids can easily become overwhelmed with too much choice (that goes for anything, actually!) Lego is really useful (a bit later on) because it requires so much concentration. Charlie is absolutely adorable - I love the way he looks straight at the camera, brilliant.

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  4. I have two boys (1.5 yrs & 3.5 yrs) and would consider myself a little 'tight' when it comes to buying toys compared to most other families we know. I have always noted the erratic concentration of my boys when they are presented with too many play choices, too much stimulation to effectively filter through. Most people would consider decisions to purchase toys for children to be based on material values. For us it is definitely about providing them with appropriate development opportunities.

    I would really love to know of any recent formal studies on this subject....

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  5. When my son Rory was little I used to stagger Christmas and birthday presents over a period of a fortnight (and some I'd hide away for months). He then found the big day itself far less stressful.
    Excellent post...but now I'v burnt the toast as I wasn't concentrating!

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  6. Are they the same grandparents who insist that they themselves have so many things that no-one ever buys them any presents, Serena?

    I think Charlie sometimes starts doing that, Pippa. But then he gets distracted by something as he's searching, and the butterfly behaviour begins.

    Thanks Liz and, yes, we're starting building up the Lego collection for that very reason. And, to be honest, he'll happily spend time doing with things with Duplo at the moment, so I'm certainly not hiding that!

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  7. TOTALLY agree with this. I have a 'one or two toys at a time' policy and the rest have to go away.

    Weirdly though, my Health Visitor told me the other day that she thinks limited sessions of TV actually helps IMPROVE concentration in children. Sitting, watching and following a programme (and it then finishing and being switched off) she feels is quite a good discipline. Interesting how opinions differ isn't it?

    Charlie is adorable. Him and Kai would have so much fun I reckon (when Kai stopped staring fearfully at him) as 'Bin Men' also a firm favourite in this house :)
    x

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  8. So would I, Karen. I'm sure there must be some. I'll see if I can find any. And of course, the over-stimulation problem is more acute in the case of all those well-chosen, educational toys we're all persuaded into buying. Can't beat an old-fashioned whip-and-top!

    By default, that's what happened this Christmas Trish. Charlie took so long opening one present, then playing with it, that he probably had something new on all twelve days!

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  9. Charlie really has a thing for bin men!

    My mum brought a huge bag of hand-me-down toys on her last visit. Everywhere I look I see multicoloured plastic! At playgroup the babies seem far more interested chewing on a pine cone or shower puff!

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  10. I think you're observations are true. I've noticed the same with our little 'un. Limiting the toys he has access to actually increases his chances of playing with the ones that are left and he gets more out of them. Too much choice is a bad thing!

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  11. Oh yes, MDM, he certainly does! (Wish I knew what the attraction was...)

    And as for the growing pile of toys, don't you find clearing up almost impossible? No matter how much time I spend on my hands and knees there's always something that I tread on (painfully).

    It's like going to a restaurant with an enormous menu, Steve. At least, it is as far as my wife's concerned. Too much choice can make you hungry too!

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  12. This is exactly the reason we've taken to taking some toys out of rotation each month and putting them up the loft! It amazes me how many toys my son has accumulated in his less than four years, especially when I take into account that we do not buy him toys very often.

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  13. Interesting toy theory. Of course, when we were kids we only had broken cutlery to play with....

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  14. Guilty as charged. My 8 month old is at this precise moment in time sitting on the floor with approximately 8 or 9 toys. She passes from one to the other. I think I am going to start limiting the number of toys! I'm sure you're onto something there! X

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  15. I think they multiply by themselves when they're packed away at night Erin. It's the only explanation.

    Cutlery? That was luxury, that was DD...

    It'll be interesting to find out what happens FM... this could be the first big blog experiement. Come back and post your findings in a month's time!

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  16. I think you're right. Our boys have always played downstairs and kept their toys in their bedroom, and we've simply limited the amount of toys that are allowed downstairs at any one time. Now that they're 11 and 12 this currently means a box of lego and a construction set. Wait? What is that scale model of Carcassone I see half-made down there? OK, so they sneak extra stuff down too...

    We found that giving the boys a good tape to listen to on shortish car journeys was ultimately unhelpful. They learned not to sit and do nothing. Actually, being able to sit and do nothing every now and then is a very useful skill.

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  17. 12 minutes for an eleven yr old! Blimey, Amy's ten so that means she should stay focused for about 11 minutes. Try 11 seconds.

    CJ xx

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  18. Watched the vid with my daughter, she wanted to see it again! He is SO cute! It doesn't seem long since my two were that age, it all went so quickly, I used to love it when they babbled away to themselves! :)

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  19. I like the idea of moving things upstairs, Floss, and I suspect that's something we'll be doing before long. Trouble is Charlie's not really old enough to want to play in his bedroom, and even with selected toys the living room ends up in a complete mess with toys everywhere.

    And that's down on what it used to be, CJ! But there's always been considerable variation, and in Amy's case I suppose things are bound to be a little different. Charlie's concentration seems to fluctuate wildly at the moment. But he's been a bit more focussed today, thank goodness.

    Charlie's just seen it for the first time Sub, and HE wanted to look at it again as well! Vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas, as they used to say. Well, they still do I suppose. Just not like that.

    Actually that little clip was filmed a couple of months ago and the meaningless babble has become a more recognizable in that short time. As you say, it goes too quickly. Or, to keep the Latin going, tempus fugit.

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  20. That's a very interesting theory. We've been trying to enforce the 'put things away when you've finished with them' rule here, to limit the mess. Every now and then we talk about proper rotation of toys and about once a year we have a clear out and put toys in the loft/basement or give them to relatives and/or charity shops. But we are not nearly brutal enough, I fear.

    I like the idea of having boxes of different kinds of toys and bringing one up (or down) to play with on a single day, then putting it back and bringing something else out the next day. But then again, I do also like providing a choice. Hmmm.

    The concentration time theory is interesting, too. I feel it is definitely different for different chidlren, though. When I was a child, I would happily sit for a couple of hours reading books, or doing puzzles, whereas my sister tended to flit from activity to activity (hmm, didn't have a TV when I was a child and did when she was). Rosemary's concentration seems to fit that formula quite well, though there are times she will concentrate for longer - she can sit and watch a whole Disney film in one go, now; she will sit and play a board game to it's conclusion, usually. But I've seen friends of hers who can concentrate for much, much longer and some who can't concentrate for anywhere near as long.

    And... as an unscientific guess, I think the ones who can concentrate longer are ones who's parents limit their toys, but probably also limit their TV, so...

    Am just blathering now, but am very interested to find out more!

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  21. Fascinating observations Tasha. Like you, I see all sorts of variations and speculate as to the reasons. But then, as Josie said (and sorry, Josie - seem to have missed your comment earlier in a case of cross-posting) TV can actually be recommended as a good thing from time to time. I suspect, like you, that different rules apply to different children and generalising is the big mistake we all make. On the other hand, our brains aren't that different from each other...

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  22. Tim...I like your theory. Little Miss is nearly 20 months so not far behind Charlie. We have a storage chest/thingy (IKEA) in our lounge that has most of Little Miss' toys in it but as they are stored in bins that are pushed in, out of sight...out of mind. Makes me wonder why we have the toys that are in there, to tell you the truth. I'm going to do a mega-clear out for a sale in February. She mainly has 5-6 soft toys that she gravitates to and her Little People Fisher-Price Petting Zoo/Farm which she plays with throughout the day. It does make a big difference if her toys are not laying out in front of her...she doesn't find the need for them. It also seems to make a difference if I'm in the room or not! She'll play longer at something and "role play" if I'm not in the room. I can hear her chattering away to herself and being much more self-sufficient when I'm in the kitchen doing something (mind you, I'm not leaving her on her own while I go to the shop!). Interesting how the lack of an adult in the room allows her to play more freely...what do you think about that one?
    Is this your first FLIP of Charlie?? Lovely...he has gorgeous eyes! ;)
    Karin

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  23. You are so right, too many toys = too many fights in my house, and now the kids are starting to copy me. Time for a clear out methinks.

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  24. I completely agree with the toy thing - my older two were overwhelmed with toys from a young age and it's not a mistake I have made with No3... although I have to say, as they get older they filter and regulate the stuff themselves, I have two teenagers who crave minimalist living!

    However... does this translate into an education setting? I have way too many opinions to foist on you in a comment :) but one thing you said made me chuckle... we have indeed learnt much about how children learn in recent years, yet still we deliver education based on a 19th century model. A paradigm shift is loooooong overdue.

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  25. Sausages are amazing brain food. Increase your intake!

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  26. you are so right, i went through all the girls toys and kept out only a few things and piled the rest into toy boxes out of sight. today they found one of the toy boxes and played with the contents for a long time. you should write a parenting book xxxxx

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  27. Hello again Charlie, nice bin men...
    Tim, I used to do childcare in my home and what I found worked best for mine and other people's toddlers was to keep life very simple: a few toys at a time, as much outside time and walks as possible, and I would spend an hour reading to them after lunch (and then read my own book while they watched t.v. for a bit). In other words, I agree with you!

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  28. Like you Karin, I think Charlie can amuse himself more when I'm not in sight than when I'm in the same room and 'available'. Sometimes I just leave the sitting room and sit on the stairs so I can hear him, but let him get on. It makes a difference, you're right. And glad you like the 'Flipping' video!

    Oh no, Jamie. Et tu?

    Funny you should say that Amy! A similar project has been taking up a considerable amount of time lately. Watch this space!

    That sounds like a good routine Rebecca. And once you've got a good routine that's more than half the battle, in my (limited) experience.

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  29. I think you do have a very good point there. I've seen the flitting about behaviour with both my nephews (9 & 4)

    Abigail gets immensly frustrated if she has more than one type of toy in front of her. I even had to stop using her activity mat as she would get so cross with all the flaps and mirrors etc. A plain mat and one type of toy and she is fine and focuses for 1 - 2 minutes (Which for 8 months old, I don't think is too terrible)

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  30. No, that sounds pretty good Eoforhild. I sometimes wonder whether some of the whizzy baby-mats and activity gyms over-stimulate the infant brain. After all, it's got a lot to cope with at that age with ordinary sensory information. Another theory...

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  31. Yep, I think you're right. My step-nephew got a whole pile of shiny, expensive toys this Christmas, but apparantly the one he plays with is a piece of wood with a balloon on it that you can put in the bath. TAKE THE OTHER ONES AWAY, I say.

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  32. Charlie is adorable and clearly happily playing with just the one toy in the clip! Interesting to read everyone's comments. We sell toys (Tish Tash Toys) so obviously will be starving & penniless if you all stop buying! But on a more ecological note, I do get narked about all the plastic rubbish bought for my two (destined for overflowing landfill one day, courtesy of those lovely binmen!). But what can you say (to grandparents etc) without sounding ungrateful? We ask for book vouchers and the kids always need clothes. And must add - cutlery....?! My goodness, up north it was only coal to play with in the 70's!

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  33. A piece of wood with a balloon on it Gadjo? And you can take it in the bath too? I want one...

    Well, yes Sharon I suppose that's the down-side of the plan. But we could all just go for a few well-chosen, quality toys perhaps. And put the manufacturers of plastic-tat out of business!

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  34. Hmm. Having just gone back to work in the classroom, I think that attention spans have fallen away even in my short absence for maternity leave! Perhaps a direct result of santa's deliveries last month...

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  35. Another, less discussed issue about the average western world kid's excessive amount of toys is that this teaches them consumerism. No toy has any significant value. Destroy/lose/throw out one (or more) and more will magically appear.

    There is no point talking to grandparents/aunties/uncles - they continue to buy stuff even if they know that there is no need for it. The kids accept everything gratefully, but for about 75% of toys, that is the last time they will be seen.

    I limit the anount of toys available to my children. Those suplus to requirements are surreptitiously removed and donated to local charity shops. My kids are (at least) just as happy as their peers.

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  36. Another, less discussed issue about the average western world kid's excessive amount of toys is that this teaches them consumerism. No toy has any significant value. Destroy/lose/throw out one (or more) and more will magically appear.

    There is no point talking to grandparents/aunties/uncles - they continue to buy stuff even if they know that there is no need for it. The kids accept everything gratefully, but for about 75% of toys, that is the last time they will be seen.

    I limit the anount of toys available to my children. Those suplus to requirements are surreptitiously removed and donated to local charity shops. My kids are (at least) just as happy as their peers.

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  37. You could well be right, Hearth-mother. I certainly think that the dumbing-down policy of the National Strategy can't actually do much to improve matters. Best of luck on your return to teaching, though.

    You're absolutely right Robert. The message that happiness is something you can buy or add to your Christmas present list is everywhere. Which reminds me, I thought we were supposed to be banning advertising directed at children?

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  38. That makes perfect sense to me. I shall remember this for when L is a little older!! And I love love love your little videos.

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  39. Aha!

    You'll notice, Claire, that the videos are perfectly timed for the average blog-readers attention-span.... unlike the post itself (yawn)!

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  40. Hi Dott,

    Apologies for running off topic, but I wonder if you can give me a little local knowledge?

    Are there any good "proper" butchers in Boston? If so I'll make a detour there next time I'm in Sleaford, to collect some more sausage specimens! Maybe we can arrange that cuppa in the market place?

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  41. You're onto a good thing there - we've just done a clear through of toys and put some of the Christmas ones up in the loft for a few months, I think she's happier (and things are a bit less plastic-ed up which is nice)

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  42. Proper butchers? The town's full of 'em Mr Sausage. And one of them is even called 'The Boston Sausage', purveyor of fine, er, sausages to thbe nation. They even have a stall in Borough Market, sarf London. So, yes... I'll take you on a guided tour of the town's best. And then we'll have a cuppa.

    Always good to clear a bit of plastic MAM. I'm slightly restricted in what I can clear because of my refusal to use the loft. I have a paranoid fear of clearing it out, and thus find not putting anything in the only answer. Mind you, I've got a lot of cupboards!

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  43. Interesting observation. My two year old flits abut from toy to toy with the attention span and memory of a goldfish going round and round its bowl. I videoed her once just to see how long she spent on any given thing with toys strewn on the floor and then just put a few toys out and it was markedly different. Social experiments in my living room! My 10 year old, on the other hand, can concentrate for hours on trying to get to the next level on a Playstation game. Not so good.

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  44. That's another dimension entirely Alison, and one I hadn't thought of: different types of concentration. Obviously most parents want to encourage active, engaged attention but is it that different when you're involved in a video-game? Or watching a TV programme? The assumption is that these things are passive, but that depends entirely on the person in question. I know I watch some of the least-engaging TV ever (history docs on beeb four for example!) and leave the sofa buzzing, while sleb BB renders me comatose.

    Thanks for your contribution!

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  45. i am the pooper at the party who can add that i observe a child's attention span can be hours and hours on something for which they have their own goals, purpose, motivation, and sense of achievement; in my smug bastard type of home educating experience that can be anything, from learning about reef life, the novels of philip pulman, or history in the time of edward iii. i am going to be even more stinker by adding how we noticed our children were able to focus on things for a long period of time, and we didn't want school to spoil that and break up their need to concentrate by imposing arbitrary time boundaries.

    ok, now you can shoot me.

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  46. Hiding and rotating toys is exactly what my childminder advocated so that they don't flit from one to another. A wise woman, my childminder.

    I find that children have dreadful attention spans in the classroom and one of my jobs this half term is to find/make some resources for developing listening skills in the classroom. One class I teach are all in the two upper quartiles nationally for maths, verbal reasoning, spatial awareness, etc, but in the lowest quartile for listening skills! Can do but won't listen!

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  47. Personally, Grit, I couldn't agree more. Schools, and the outdated 'factory model' of education sometimes do more harm than good.


    A very wise woman, Working Mum! That's sound advice... I only wish I hadn't had to learn its truth the hard way!

    It's very interesting to hear that you have the same problems I experienced in the classroom, too. I was convinced (in that frustrated teacher, not-got-a-hope-of-being-heard kind of way) that the national strategy was flawed the moment it appeared to be dumbing down in favour of the ever-shrinking attention-span. Surely the opposite - training children to stay focussed for longer - was the correct response, as your school seems to be doing.

    More power to your elbow!

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