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.

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