Hey, I Want to Do That. No, This. No, That.

Dear Mr. Dad: My four-year-old daughter gets bored incredibly quickly. She’ll do something for five or ten minutes and then she’s up and on to something else. I’m having trouble keeping her occupied, since we run out of activities in less than an hour. We had her screened for ADD and other conditions, but the tests all came back fine. Is there some way to keep her focused for more than just a few minutes?

A: Did you know that a normal attention span for a child is 2-5 minutes for each year of age? For your daughter, that’s 8-20 (a big range, but not far from the “five or ten minutes” you mentioned).

There may be a number of issues at play here.

  • Your child’s temperament. Some children tend to be low energy, others bounce off the walls. Some are boisterous, others quiet. Some can pay attention for an hour, others have the attention span of a gnat.
  • All preschoolers are easily distracted—even the ones with long attention spans. The difference is that some children can get back to what they were originally doing, while others—like your daughter—can’t (or don’t).
  • Curiosity and excitement. There are so many things for your daughter to discover and explore in her world. She may think that if she finishes her puzzle, she won’t have time to start drawing. So, in an attempt to fit everything in, she ends up beginning a lot of activities but not finishing any.

That said, your daughter needs to develop the ability to concentrate on one task at a time and finish each activity before moving on to the next. When she starts school, she’ll be expected to complete assignments and projects in a timely and efficient manner. The sooner you help her develop those skills, the better. Here are some activities that should help.

  • Read. Hopefully you’re already doing this. But if not, it’s never too late to start. Begin with five to ten minutes and gradually increase. If your daughter won’t sit still, read anyway, but ask her to retell the story to you. If she will sit in your lap, extend story time by talking about the illustrations or asking questions (Why do you think that bunny bit the wolf?)
  • Matching games. Use pairs of identical cards—buy some or make your own. Start off with eight cards (four pairs) face down on the table. Alternate turning over one card and trying to find the match.
  • Get outside. Researchers have found that a 20-minute walk in the park greatly increases children’s attention span. Set up a scavenger hunt, pretend to be earthworms, or get a magnifying glass and identify bugs.
  • Do things she likes to do. All of us—adults or kids—will spend more time doing things we want to do than things someone else tells us to do.
  • Lifestyle check. How’s your daughter’s diet? Is she getting enough physical activity (60 minutes/day is about right)? How about sleep? (11-12 hours/day total, including naps)?
  • Use a timer. Set it for 15 minutes and explain that she (or the two of you) will paint or play or whatever until the buzzer sounds. Only then will you allow her to move on to the next activity.
  • Praise her every time she continues an activity for the full time. As her attention span gets longer, gradually increase the number of minutes on the timer. But make sure you keep your expectations reasonable by remembering the 2-5-minutes-per-year rule.