A child’s attention span — how long he or she can spend on a task before getting distracted — increases with age. In a 1990 study of young children in play, researchers found that a child’s duration of “focused attention” on the toys correlated with the age of the child. Older children focused more on problem solving and were less distracted by other physical movements. This means that the increase in attention span was not only due to the intrinsic development of the older child, but also the increased complexity of his activities.
In addition, the conditions in which these activities are presented also impact attention span. When frequently asked to “stay on task”, preschoolers paid less attention to distractions and more attention on the task itself. Simply repeating instructions to focus has a great effect on a child’s attention span, and can be implemented in any classroom or environment.
Children’s attention spans are also dependent upon how big each activity is. Sites such as parents.com claim that breaking a task into small pieces can keep children engaged more. This is corroborated in a 2010 study, which showed that young children allocated attention similarly to adults with small arrays of information. This means that children don’t have smaller attention spans because of inefficiencies in their memory allocation, but simply because they don’t have as much working memory to work with.
When dealing with younger children, it’s important to note the “why” behind general principles of education. It’s easy to assume that the reason of breaking up activities for children is simply to make each activity fit into smaller attention spans. However, this would miss activities that are short in duration, but are too complex to keep a child’s attention regardless. These nuances must be kept in consideration.