Increasing Attention Span in Toddlers Through Purposeful Play

As you know, I love to create little activities that invite my girls to discover, investigate and explore in their own way and in their own time. I have learned not to have an ‘agenda‘ with these invitations, knowing that my children’s minds, unlike mine, are blank slates with no preconceived ideas or expectations and consequently they engage in activities far differently than I would even dare to imagine. My imagination and creativity has been reduced as I have grown up through life but theirs is still blossoming and developing and I love to see where it takes them through these invitations.  The girls have always approached these activities with excitement and I have never had one overlooked or rejected. Now, this sounds wonderful and amazing etc but the reality is that the average time that it takes my children (especially my two year old, Lucy) to discover an investigation, form a hypothesis, test it and then reach her conclusions, is roughly five minutes. And whilst I appreciate that age is not in her favour when it comes to attention span, I have often wondered whether there is something more to her seemingly limited one. I have read and reread articles and examples from Janet Lansbury, Lisa Sunbury Gerber and a whole host of mothers who follow Magda Gerber’s RIE approach claiming that their (even younger) children are capable of playing for much longer periods of time on just the one activity. And, as I think about, I realise that even my youngest, Penny (nearly 18 months) has shown an ability to stay focused on a task for extended periods of time. So what makes my eldest child become disinterested quickly in activities that I take a great deal longer to set up than she does to play them?

Deep down I have known the answer to this for quite sometime. Through my wonderful association with Kate from An Everyday Story, I have learned that in order for some children to become invested in their play, it needs to be something that they are already curious about or have initiated completely on their own. When providing them with opportunities for play and investigation, taking this into consideration can be the difference between them engaging with the task for prolonged periods of time (even days or weeks) and investigating it at a surface level only, skimming over the top and never truly wanting to do more.

Now, it can be very hard to really know what your child is interested in, especially if they are pre verbal or still a little young to have obvious obsessions or interests. But the clues are there if you look. It could be that they have articulated an interest through asking a question or making a comment or it could be communicated in other ways such as through pretend play, an obsession with a particular book or simply showing delight during an experience they have had organically (ie through the normal course of daily play, outings or activities).

I have realised that whilst I was (and still am) providing my children with many fun and enriching experiences I was failing to involve them in the production of these. It’s like someone continually offering books for me to read on a topic about which I have no interest. I would probably start the book to see what it was like but would most likely turn away from it before it was finished if it did not tap into my own interests. This is precisely what my eldest child seems to be doing with my wonderful activities.

So, having had this revelation, I started really listening to my children; engaging them in conversations, watching them in play, looking for any signs of a deep seated interest or a curiosity that could be tapped into further. It came one day recently when we were walking through a little forest at the end of our street. We often head down there of an afternoon as the kangaroos are out for their dinner and many birds are flocking, returning to feed and roost. We were sitting on a little vine that had grown into a U shape, perfect for swinging lightly back and forwards, when a bush turkey suddenly ran across the track in front of us and then flapped clumsily on a low branch of a nearby tree. Both girls sat captivated as it flew from branch to branch looking for a high place to safely bunker down for the night. By the time it had settled it was so high up that we could only just spot it. It sparked a noticeable curiosity in Lucy and certainly seemed to capture Penny’s attention. As we were walking home, Lucy spotted a large black feather on the ground, we picked it up and surmised about which bird could have lost this feather. We spoke about birds which were black including crows, magpies and pee wees as well as the most likely culprit, the bush turkey. The next day, we had a magpie visit our backyard (as we often do) and Lucy was very excited to see it and asked if she could ‘give him her lunch’. Over the next few days and weeks, I thought about how I could keep this interest in birds alive through way of a project. I came across Kate’s lovely and inspiring bird project and was instantly struck by how simple, yet engaging and purposeful her ideas were. They were appealing to her children and allowed them to explore birds on many levels, in a meaningful and deep way. And thus began, our first project.

Firstly, as we had not a single bird book in our house, it was off to our local library to pick up some lovely child friendly ones the girls would enjoy, including a guide to Australian birds. Lucy really enjoys books so this was a perfect medium for her to learn more about these fascinating creatures. We flicked through the books and looked for birds that were familiar. I was surprised by how many birds Lucy knew already by name such as crows, magpies and kookaburras. On our outings, we began noticing birds all around us, we spoke about colours and sizes and worked out the names of the ones we were not sure of using the guide book and the internet. Keen to see more birds in our fairly sparse backyard, I spoke to Lucy about what would make them come down and visit us. Living relatively close to a small forest we actually get many birds flying overhead in the afternoons but they never stop to visit. Lucy thought that by calling to them they might come down so we tried but to no avail. It seemed they were not listening. I asked her where she thought they might be flying and she thought maybe ‘the park’. We then worked out that after the park they would head home for a bath and some dinner (as is our regular afternoon routine). So I took the lead for an invitation from this and decided on making a bird feeder so the birds could have dinner with us.

As luck would have it, amidst all our bird studies, my husband and I had come across a lovely old stump in a big dirt pile in a development across the road. In Kate’s blog, her children had built a simple bird feeder to encourage more birds into their yard using a similar stump. I set up some tools and materials in an engaging yet simple way to ensure the girls were not only involved in the project but could take some ownership and responsibility for it. It was exciting for them as they thought about all the birds they might see coming for dinner.

2 Feeder invitation

2 Stump

Lucy was responsible for building the feeder and then both the girls worked carefully scooping, pouring, carrying and filling the bird seed using cups and scoops.

2 Building feeder

2 Feeding invitation

2 Filling cups

2 Filling feeder

It took about a day before we saw our first bird visit the bird feeder and although it wasn’t a beautiful or exotic one the girls were so excited to see a peewee eating their seed. It must have felt so fulfilling for them to have been through the process and  then seen its purpose come to fruition. To help with our bird identification, I made small laminated cards for the girls (a set each) using only the birds I knew were in the area. These have been wonderful for the girls as they have watched a variety of birds come to feed and then used the cards to identify each one.

2 Bird watching

2 Flashcards

To further our study into the birds we collected more feathers on one of our walks and then did some painting using them as brushes. We also regularly use the little laminated cards in matching games which Lucy is becoming very adept at. She is now able to articulate the names of most of the birds that come into our yard including currawongs, peewees, house sparrows, blue fairy wrens (our favourites) and willy wagtails.

2 feather fossicking

2 feather painting

The girls continue to feed the birds on a regular basis and have since added a bath for them to wash in. I am hoping that by planting a few more native shrubs this spring we might entice some more colourful birds in through the warmer months. It has been so wonderful to see my children learning in a meaningful way and although I will continue to offer them invitations to explore in a variety of mediums and contexts, I am now more open to using my children to steer the investigations based on the interests that they develop along the way.

About Peaceful Parents, Confident Kids

Hi, my name is Kate. I have been a Physical Education/ Maths teacher for 12 years and am currently taking some time out to be a Mum. I have two beautiful girls aged 2 and 1 (13 month age gap). I have learned that there is so much more to parenting than 'going with your instincts' and treasure all the rewards my children present to me everyday. I have a passion for sports and have recently discovered an addiction to sewing. Thank you for taking some time out to read my ramblings :)
This entry was posted in Play and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Increasing Attention Span in Toddlers Through Purposeful Play

  1. Jen Barry says:

    Hi Kate. This is a very timely post for me. I am trying to work out at the moment how to encourage and extend my son’s (19mo) current interests – tools, vehicles, vacuums, lawnmowers and machines of all kinds! I realised I haven’t been hitting the mark with previous attempts at play invitations with animals or matching activities – he is just not interested (at least not right now). I haven’t ever seen any play invites related to these areas. Any ideas? On a side note, we have put a bird feeder in our backyard but I think it isn’t going to be very successful with our cat in the backyard 🙂


    • Hi Jen, I have done a few invitations that involve cars and trains but nothing on vacuums, lawnmowers or tools. Have you tried a large shallow container with some rice in the bottom and then a little container of cars next to it to drive through it? Leaves nice tracks in the rice. I came across one the other day that I was going to try with my girls too – using a hammer to tap golf tees into a Styrofoam block. I know my girls love hammering so maybe this might appeal to your 19mo if he likes tools. I had even thought of having a few of the larger tees sticking out of the ground outside and leaving a hammer beside them for the girls to tap them in. Sorry I don’t have too many more ideas. I will keep my eyes out for any other ideas and get back to you. Do you live near Brisbane? If so, the rail workshops museum in Ipswich might be a nice excursion for your family 🙂

      PS: Yep, you may struggle with the birdlife with your cat nearby haha!


      • Jen Barry says:

        Thanks Kate. They are great suggestions. I would love to try the hammer and tee one soon. My son is still mouthing a lot of things though so I might wait a few months until the teeth settle down. We live in Sydney but I will look into train or other vehicle museums around here.


      • No worries, Jen. Lucy was a mouther for the longest time too, so I know what it’s like. I was really pleased when in started slowing down and that my youngest has never really been a mouther. I am sure your son would love any of the Sydney museums. Have fun!


  2. Pingback: Our Weekly Play: Week 6 | Peaceful Parents, Confident Kids Blog

  3. Nae Peters says:

    what a great educational idea. I like that you included the Australian birds books and those feather paintings look like lots of fun 🙂


  4. This is right up my alley and so true. We all like to follow our own interests. I love your bird feeder and am keen to make one here too when we get the chance.


  5. Danya Banya says:

    This is lovely. I’m not an expert, but you seem to have quite a reggio way of parenting. Increasing attention span is on my radar too. I read a great book called Nurture Shock – it’s designed for slightly older kids, but the concept is still the same, that talks about if you can get your kids involved in verbalising (and even writing – whether they can write or not) their PLAN for play, then they tend to play longer. This is something that I’m keen to try…


    • Thanks Danya. I really appreciate the Reggio way of learning for young children. It just seems to make sense to have them explore their own interests and learn so many important processes along the way. I shall have to check out Nurture Shock. I haven’t heard of it but it sounds exactly like what I am trying to do.


  6. I love your thoughts on purposeful play and really enjoyed these ideas surrounding birds…especially their flashcards and the stump project. We have so many birds here at our place and I’ve realised we are not embracing all the learning opportunities this offers us….thanks for all your lovely inspiration..pinning x


  7. Kate says:

    What an adorable post and I think you really highlight how easy it is to involve our children in nature. That picture of the children waiting is divine.


  8. I remember early on seeing gorgeously and meticulously organised themed sensory tubs. You know the ones, every theme imaginable, and it would seem every kid loves. Well Jack didn’t love them, he didn’t even really care for them. All the time and effort I put into making a few was completely wasted because the activity just didn’t appeal to him. So even though I think they look amazing and lots of fun, I just don’t make them any more. It’s just like you said, if we want our children to be engaged and passionate and inquisitive then we need to create an environment which nurtures their individual interests and learning styles.

    And letting them steer they way is most of the fun, they come up with all the best questions and ideas anyway 🙂


    • Yeah, Kate. I have been a bit slow to give up on them as I had the wrong mindset. I am much better off following the girl’s leads. My only issue is that Penny actually really enjoys them when she gets to interact with one without Lucy there too (which is rare).
      I am actually going to really step back from giving the kids too much stimulation now. I would like to see where there own play takes them for a little bit now; only occasionally adding to their daily play when I see an opportunity arise to further a specific interest.


  9. Oh wow! This is fabulous and so timely! I too loved Kate’s bird series and am planning to do something similar for Miss Daisy soon! She’s so intrigued by all the visitors to our yard and also enjoys naming lots of them.
    THanks for such a great post and so many wonderful ideas! 🙂 Look forward to trying some of them out! 🙂


  10. Pingback: Using ‘Provocations’ to Extend an Interest | Peaceful Parents, Confident Kids

  11. Pingback: Learning to be a Respectful Parent | Peaceful Parents, Confident Kids

  12. Pingback: Slowing Down Care Giving Moments to Encourage Independence in Toddlers | Peaceful Parents, Confident Kids

  13. Pingback: Slowing Down Care-Giving Moments to Encourage Independence in Toddlers | Mama Healthy

I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s