Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Attention Span

We hear lots of complaints about contemporary American children’s short attention spans but N. has the opposite “problem.” His attention for a task or activity usually long outlasts that of the adults who are accompanying him. He would happily work at one Lego station at our local children’s museum for 2 hours. He observed the blacksmithing demonstration in the “Yesteryear Village” at the fair last fall for more than an hour one day and returned the next day for another 45 minutes or so, asking the blacksmiths questions all the while about what they were doing, trying to understand the strange process he was witnessing. I don’t know whether his attentiveness is “normal,” but since it was a trait that Tim and I felt we saw in him even in infancy, we have actively tried to foster it, in part by not sending him to preschool. His long attention span is an important factor in our thinking about long-term homeschooling as well. He spends a long time on each of the things he does, wringing every last bit out of them, before he’s ready to move on to something else.

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.


Holly said...

You are so absolutely right!
On more than one occasion Lucia and I have been at a museum enjoying an exhibit when the area becomes crowded with a noisy school group led by an equally noisy tour guide or teacher. Lucia always says, "Let's just wait, mom. They'll move on pretty soon." And of course she's right. So many times we've watched as these kids get whisked through from one exhibit to the next, barely stopping to look at anything.
One of the stories Lucia tells from her time in kindergarten is of a friend who was yanked away from an activity table and berated because he wanted to keep working even after it was time to clean up.
When we lived closer we used to spend a lot of time at the zoo, and not once did I ever hear a child tell their parents, "OK, I've had enough of this. Let's go look at something else." In my experience (and I've paid attention because it's of interest to me) it is ALWAYS the parents who urge the kids to move on to the next thing!

Fanny Harville said...

Indeed, witnessing school groups on "field trips" to our children's museum always confirms me on the unschooling path!
Holly, thanks for posting the first comment on my fledgling blog, and for encouraging me to get back to posting.

New Unschooler said...

I don't think most preschools or schools are more sensitive than the Gymboree party you attended. My oldest son attended Kindergarten for a full year before I decided school was not going to work for him. Everyday, they had something like accelerated high school class changes - only it was with something called "stations." The children were broken into groups and each group had their turn to engage in activity at a 'station' for a little while. I'm not sure how long the time period was for playing at a station, but there's only so much time in a school day and my son frequently complained that he didn't have enough time at the stations he really enjoyed. He would act up when it was time to switch to a new station. As a result, he'd have to sit out the rest of station time in a timeout chair. That only aggravated him further.

Jena said...

Well, I've now read through your entire blog. I can't tell you how much I appreciate your depth and sensitivity.

Norris reminds me a lot of Peter. He would not let go of a topic until he had dug deep enough to be satisfied that he fully understood and was ready to move on. I can measure his life in epochs as he tackled major topics like politics, religion and philosophy. He's the kind of kid who has to be reminded to eat because he's so engrossed in his reading.

But I love that in him, and you love that in Norris. Thank you, again, for blogging.

Fanny Harville said...

Thanks reading and for your encouragement of my blogging efforts! Your Peter sounds like such a neat person (as do your daughters!) and I pleased by the thought that he and Norris might be similar types.

Christie said...

I'm only a freshman in college but one of my goals for my little independents is to raise them and not have someone else try to do the task for me. That's one of my major problems with schools today is that in order to get through all the material they have to rush from topic to topic. There's no cohesion in my opinion and that's one of the reasons I want to homeschool my children so they can pique their own curiosity instead of it being fed to them. During my education curiosity was the one thing that was discouraged in class. I would always ask questions and draw connections of what I was interested in discussing, but the teacher had their lesson plan and my questions would never be fully answered and for that I don't want my kids subjected to that kind of learning. Thank you so much for writing this post, I am glad there are blogs like yours on the internet that are worth reading.

Fanny Harville said...

Thanks for your comment, Christie.