Once when N. was 3 ½ we went to a birthday party at Gymboree where kids were whizzed through one activity after another at breakneck pace. N., who prefers to watch a new activity from the sidelines for quite awhile before participating, seemed flabbergasted. He would barely begin to decode an activity before it was be over and something new introduced. Although I am sure most preschools are more sensitive than Gymboree, this experience has become symbolic for me. I am not talking about clinical diagnoses such as ADHD (though it is my personal and thoroughly unqualified opinion that this is overdiagnosed) , but the colloquial short attention span of children seems to be a Catch-22: when you believe children have short attention spans and structure activities in short bursts of stimulation, you at the very least confirm that short attention span, if not create it.
It might be adults, not children, who actually have the short attention spans. Tim and I always notice parents at the children’s museum interrupting their children’s play in one nook to entice them to check out some other area. “Do you want to go upstairs to the donut factory or the grocery store now?” And it is definitely a challenge to sit with N. at his favorite Lego table for two hours! I have to make a conscious effort at the beginning of every weekend to switch from my work mode, where I make my own agenda and take pleasure in accomplishing numerous tasks, to N.’s chilled-out mode, where drawing pictures together for an hour or more is all he wants to do. It is easy to fall into the habit of being the activity mommy, planning outings and scheduling the day. There’s nothing wrong with outings, but I enjoy sharing some of that long intense attentiveness that structures Tim and N.’s time at home during much of the week.
Yesterday when I called home from work, I heard that Tim and N. had spent over an hour and a half reading about bats, first in Tim’s issue of Scientific American that happened to be on the breakfast table, then in our WorldBook and Britannica encyclopedias (sets bought for $15 each from my university library's annual deaccession sale -- such a great resource!). This led (maybe because they were in the B volumes?) to reading about bees. N. told me lots of interesting stuff about bats on the phone. And today he asked Tim to read the Scientific American article again, and later they got books about bats from the library, which I read to him at bedtime. I love the way the unschool environment makes this kind of sustained engagement with a topic possible, that N. can pursue bats for as long as he wants to, with no one forcing him to move arbitrarily to something new before he’s ready.