If you are wondering how your 4-year-old's attention span stacks up against expected averages, you should first consider all of the factors that go into this sometimes sophisticated skill. While every child is different and develops at his own rate, the typical road to building the abilities necessary for a longer attention span necessitates growth in the cognitive and sometimes emotional arenas.
Attention Span and School
Many 4-year-olds are well on their way to moving into the grade school years by way of kindergarten. According to the Children's Hospital of Colorado, the average attention span that preschoolers need to succeed in school, especially when they reach kindergarten, is 15 minutes. This seemingly brief attention span allows the young child time to focus on one concept or activity without distraction or a loss of concentration. Fifteen minutes is a long enough time to complete a simple craft, listen to a story or engage in a circle time calendar activity.
Your 4-year-old's cognitive development plays a pivotal role in developing an average attention span. As a child turns 4, he begins to get a firmer grasp on time concepts. While a younger child may understand before or after, a preschooler is often capable of understanding more complex ideas such as morning, noon and night or actual amounts of time. A 4-year-old may have the capabilities to understand that five more minutes of play time is less than an hour but more than finishing right away. This allows the child to focus for a directed period of time, knowing that there is a finite expectation for his attention span. Another cognitive development that contributes to an increase in the average attention span of a 4-year-old, as compared to the toddler years, is the ability to self-regulate mental activity. While this skill is still immature, it does play a part in getting to 15 uninterrupted minutes of concentration.
Toddlers and younger preschoolers typically don't have the emotional abilities to stay focused for what often seems like more than a few minutes. Aside from poor self-regulation, children under 4 often lack emotional skills to concentrate on a task for extended periods of time. Children under preschool age may get easily frustrated with an activity that they perceive as difficult. Having little means to express or understand the powerful emotions associated with frustration, they may give up and lose attention. Although a 4-year-old is certainly not up to par on an emotional level with an older grade school-aged child, he may have the emotional skills to handle minor frustrations and keep his attention focused on a task for short periods of time.
Building Attention Span
While your 4-year-old may have an attention span that flirts with the 15-minute mark, some kids simply don't have the ability to stay focused for that block of time yet. Instead of dismissing your child as scattered or writing him off as inattentive, there are some strategies you can try to increase his attention span. Give your child one toy or activity to try at a time. Avoid inundating him with multiple options, as this will distract him and break his focus. During play or project times, keep distractions to a minimum. Turn off the TV, cut out background noise and give your preschooler the chance to build up his attention span.