An Rx for Restlessness

Preschoolers are notorious for flitting quickly from one fun thing to another. Learn some simple ways to help your busy bee slow down.

Two-year-old Samuel Weinstein loves to play on his swing set—for about 60 seconds, that is. "The next minute, he'll ask me if he can help feed the dog. Shortly after that, he'll want to play with a soccer ball, then it's back to the swing set once again," says his mom, Nicole, of Ballston Spa, New York. "It's incredibly exhausting."

Preschoolers are famous for jumping from one activity to the next. As frustrating as this can be for their parents, it's actually a normal part of their learning process, as well as a reflection of their healthy excitement about the world. Kids this age want to do anything and everything at once, but with your help, they can focus. Here's how.

Endless possibilities

Think about the last time you were confronted with a lavish buffet. You wanted all the delicious food—the luscious lobster, the big chunks of cheese, the shiny cinnamon rolls—didn't you? But hopefully, you tried to pick and choose. A child doesn't have that kind of self-restraint. He sees a tricycle, blocks, and crayons, and feels torn. In fact, preschoolers are specifically wired not to be selective, says Lawrence E. Shapiro, Ph.D., a psychologist and author of The Secret Language of Children. They learn best from interacting with their environment. "A variety of experiences help form neural connections in the brain, and young children constantly seek out new information," says Janette Benson, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at the University of Denver. It's also why the initial thrill of an activity can quickly wear off. Don't expect your child to be fascinated by anything for more than ten or 15 minutes.

Concentrated efforts

While it's easy to sympathize with your child's enthusiasm for everything, it's also okay to help her start slowing down a bit. It will give you a much-needed break, and in the long run, the ability to concentrate will help her in school. So when her attention wanders:

  • Don't overload her with options. Put out just a few of her favorite playthings at one time. Rotate the available selection as well, so the novelty doesn't wear off.
  • Keep toys age-appropriate. Anything that's way above your child's skill level will cause him to give up and move on fast. And try to remember that fancier isn't better. "We bought our 3-year-old son, Nicholas, an electric car," says Jenny Ross, of Apex, North Carolina. "He sat on it a handful of times, but the concept of steering and putting his foot on a pedal was hard, so he quit." Even if the guidelines on a toy's packaging say that it's perfect for preschoolers, use your judgment about whether it's right for your child.
  • Keep things moving along. Anything that allows your preschooler to be physically active—like dancing to a tape of children's songs or rolling a ball on your patio—will naturally draw her in, says Lori Evans, Ph.D., a child psychologist at the New York University Child Study Center.
  • Make sure your child gets enough shut-eye and eats a healthy diet. Sleep deprivation and poor nutrition take a toll on an adult's attention, and it's the same with kids.
  • Limit TV time. For every hour of TV that a child between the ages of 1 and 3 watches daily, his chance of having an attention problem by the time he's 7 may increase by nearly 10 percent, says Dimitri A. Christakis, M.D., a researcher at Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center, in Seattle.
  • Make it fun. To encourage your child to focus her attention longer on an activity, set a timer, and challenge her to keep playing for several more minutes. And if that doesn't work, take heart: Eventually, she'll learn to take her time and really enjoy whatever it is she's chosen to do.

Copyright © 2004. Reprinted with permission from the November 2004 issue of Parents magazine.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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