Preschool Attention Spans: What to Expect and How to Accommodate

We’re all familiar with the pediatric therapist and their bag, but have you ever stopped to notice that the bag, or rather bag size, gives you a fair idea of what age they serve? It’s an inverse relationship.

Big bag, little people.

Little bag, big people.

Part of this is because toys are bulky and if we have any hope of reaching and engaging our young learners we need to meet them with appropriate play. But it’s also because of those developing attention spans.

How long can they attend?

A rough estimate is that a child will have an attention span that is 2-4 times their chronological age.

2 years 4-8 min
3 years 6-12 min
4 years 8-16 min
5 years 10-20 min

But there are a lot of other considerations that go into these estimates.

What impacts attention span?

  • Sleep/Illness: It’s easy to overlook, often because we don’t always have the information, but poor sleep or illness can dramatically decrease a child’s ability to attend.
  • Interest in the task: Just like with adults, a child will attend to a preferred activity much longer than one that’s imposed on them.
  • Challenges: Whether the challenge is cognitive, fine or gross motor, the added “load” will cause attention to fatigue more easily. This is something to consider in particular for our kids with sensory difference who might have an “invisible” load that is impacting focus. Remember that for little ones “sitting still” would be a gross motor challenge. Those bodies are designed for movement!

How can we adjust?

Most settings are insisting that the child bend to the demands of the room or adult, but at home or in a therapy setting we want to accommodate the child’s attention span to maximize learning. This doesn’t mean we won’t push them outside of their comfort zone!

For the 3 year olds I work with, I plan four to six activities for each 30 min session. Sometimes we finish them all, sometimes we just do a couple. I typically bring at least one activity they are familiar with which might be a repeat from other sessions or very closely aligned with something we’ve done before like finding zoo animals in a sensory bin when we’ve previously found farm animals, stacking a different kind of block or trying a different lift the flap book.

I bookend my session with the good stuff and I hide the really tricky stuff in the beginning of the middle part. And I change my expectations for focus depending on the activity. Written, it might look like this:

  • Familiar and preferred, but not their favorite (6 min)
  • Challenging activity (4 min)
  • Moderate challenge, often this is a new version of something we’ve done before (if the previous activity went particularly poorly, I would swap in an easy or familiar activity) (6 min)
  • Familiar activity (6 min)
  • Preferred, motivating activity (6 min)
  • Parent wrap-up/home activities note

I know this can look hectic! But actually when I have my materials, and enough materials, I end up spending a lot less time on behavior management which makes everyone feel more successful! Plus….just because we have a bunch of activities, doesn’t mean we always have completely different materials for each one.

What this can look like in practice

For instance, if we are working on sorting (goal: categories) I might have a bag of plastic farm animals and toy cars and one activity is getting all of the animals ready to play. Once the animals are sorted out, I might pull out something a little messy like pudding to stand in as “mud” and each animal gets muddy and then jumps in a container of water to rinse off. This allows us to work on early concepts (goal: opposites): dirty/clean, in/out, happy/sad (there’s always a disapproving momma animal that doesn’t like the mud), day/night (because you get tucked in after a bath). Now that the animals are ready for bed, we’ll read them a bedtime story and my “assistant” can help. This might be lifting flaps and labelling what’s beneath or finishing the line in a rhyming story (goal: vocabulary, rhyming).

Lots of goals, lots of targeted play, but not an overwhelming amount of materials or constant taking out and putting away.

Let me know what you find most challenging about our preschool friends in the comments below!


This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Peri walker

    Thank you Kim,
    I primarily work with this age group and I absolutely love the attention time span table. That is so helpful. I find that my sensory bins and pom-pom activities go a long way.

    1. Kim Lewis

      I love sensory bins too! I use pom-pom activities with my PreK/K students usually for articulation. If you have other ideas, I’d love to hear them! Kim

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The views expressed in this blog are my own and are intended to inspire other speech-language pathologists in their own practice. If you are a parent, teacher or other educator, these ideas are not intended to take the place of treatment by a certified clinician. Read full disclaimer here.