My son Harper is a typical toddler: always exploring and never settling on one thing. He'll pick up his pretend tool set, bang with the hammer, and then toss it. Next he'll grab his duck toy and quack around the room a few times before moving on. Then it's time for a quick stop at the Legos area before he heads for the bookshelf, grabs Goodnight Moon, and tosses the book into my lap (so I can read it to him).
For children this age, the world is too exciting to stick with a single activity, and they're still learning to pay attention, says Kathleen Kannass, Ph.D., associate professor of developmental psychology at Loyola University Chicago. In her research, she found that an average 2 1/2-year-old can focus on a toy for about four minutes -- roughly a third as long as a typical 4-year-old might. As with talking and walking, each kid's attention span develops at its own rate. Still, there's good reason to encourage your child's concentration. If he can focus long enough to complete a simple puzzle, build a block tower, or make it through a whole board book, he'll also become better at weathering the wait at restaurants, checkout lines, and doctors' offices. These strategies will help him stay engaged for a longer stretch.
Adults are better at tuning out noises than young kids are. While we may not notice the sound of a dog barking in a neighbor's yard, it could easily disrupt your child's focus. "Many toddlers tend to hear things a little louder than adults do. Also, textures are a little scratchier and smells are a little stronger," says Jennifer Weaver, a licensed clinical social worker who works with young children in the Washington, D.C., area.
Although your child will eventually learn to ignore such distractions, you should try to minimize them for now. Instead of leaving out a bunch of tempting toys in the living room, have your child select just one and then take it to another area. Also make sure the TV is off and that if there's music on it's soft and soothing, since toddlers pay attention better -- and play more intently -- when they're in a quiet setting.
Instead of thinking about how long your child spends doing an activity, consider his interest level, suggests Dr. Kannass. If he ditches the shape sorter after placing only two blocks, nudge him to try to do one more. Since completing a puzzle is a significant challenge at this age, see if he can fit a few pieces each time. This will promote your toddler's attention span and his ability to tolerate frustration. You can also employ other techniques to stretch an older toddler's attention. As your child starts to tire of his Play-Doh set, for instance, ask him which color is his favorite and then make your own silly creation. Showing interest in his activity may inspire him to keep playing.
Your toddler may be in the habit of walking around and exploring while you read to her, but that doesn't mean she isn't listening. "Some young kids, especially very active ones, are most attentive when they're moving around the room," says Claire Lerner, director of parenting resources at the nonprofit Zero to Three and coauthor of Bringing Up Baby: Three Steps to Making Good Decisions in Your Child's First Years. Not convinced? Put down the book, and ask her a question. You may be surprised to see she's following the narrative. If not, adopt a more interactive approach. When you're reading a story about a frog, have her jump like one. For a princess tale, see if she can twirl around like Cinderella. Lerner often gives squirmy kids a squishy ball to squeeze and hold during circle time. "It helps soothe them and allows them to remain calm," she says.
If your child never goes near the pretend food set or the toy piano, don't push him to do so. Instead, help him connect more deeply with toys you know he likes. If he's a Thomas the Tank Engine fan, take him for a ride on a real train or buy picture books that show how these machines work. "Deepening a child's knowledge helps him see familiar toys with fresh eyes and often leads to a greater ability to concentrate," says Weaver.
You can also add games that encourage observation to your daily routine. During a drive, play "I spy" or make up a song about what you're planning to do that morning ("First we go to swimming class, then we fill the tank with gas"). When you're standing in line at the post office, challenge him to spot people wearing glasses or carrying phones. And at the grocery store, have him hunt for fruits and veggies of a specific color. These exercises will help your toddler realize there are things all around him that are worthy of his attention.
Originally published in the November 2013 issue of Parents magazine.