Adapted from “Visual Media and Young Children’s Attention Spans,” by Gloria de Gaetano
The ability to mentally focus, attend, and sustain concentration over a period of time is an internal process developed in early childhood.
A “good brain for learning” must develop strong neural highways. As children develop strong neural highways, they also develop an attention span. Research shows that extensive exposure to television and video games may promote development of “scan and shift” attention, as opposed to focused attention.
Dr. Jerome Singer, a researcher on children and television at Yale states: “television, with its clever use of constantly changing short sequences, holds our attention by a sensory bombardment that maximizes orienting responses . . . we are constantly drawn back to the set and to processing each new sequence of information as it is presented. The set trains us to watch it.”
We can help children develop focused attention necessary for learning by keeping the following in mind:
- Limit TV viewing. Research demonstrates that the viewing habits of toddlers and preschoolers will likely become their viewing habits as adults. It is imperative to start teaching healthy TV habits early.
- Provide mental challenges such as giving children choices, asking them questions, and providing materials for play rather than a lot of expensive toys. A puzzle instead of a video game; a trip to an art museum instead of a movie sometimes; an aquarium for the child’s bedroom instead of a TV – these are gifts which will nurture the development of an appropriate attention span.
- Don’t fill children’s time every minute. Boredom, or down time, is a necessary part of developing intrinsic motivation, along with deep understanding of one’s own creative process. To develop the ability to concentrate, youngsters must be left alone to acquire ingenuity and inventiveness.
- Avoid the temptation to fill leisure moments with TV. Audio books are as convenient as television for most parents and are much more effective for developing young attention spans. With the visual image, there is no need to use the imagination. Listening to the symbolic system of language in the form of a great story, however, requires attention and imagination.
- Choose television programs and videos with a slower pace more in line with “real-world rhythms.” Fast-paced images trigger more reactions than responses. Also, refrain from purchasing any video-game system before a child is ten, if at all possible. By age 10 most children’s brains will have matured enough to enjoy a good mental challenge and trigger-happy games will be less satisfying to them.