A the child’s short attention span can be something to behold. One moment they are playing with their train, the next moment They’re going around in circles, and now they’re asking to watch a TV show, when all you want them to do is put their shoes away like you asked. However, as recent study suggests, this wandering attention is an important part of the learning process—one that helps them make sense of an uncertain environment. In some select situations, this wandering attention can even help children avoid a learning trap that adults, with their more focused attention, can sometimes fall into.
Wandering attention is useful when you don’t know the rules.
In the study, the researchers had two groups of participants:one composed of 4- and 5-year-old, and the second composed of adults—play a computer game in which they were asked to differentiate between two types of creatures, without being told which was which. To detect when their attention wandered, the researchers used eye trackers to record where their attention was.
In the middle of the game, the characteristic that differentiated these two creatures changed. without the participants being told that the rules have changed. When this happened, the adults, who learned to play much faster and were more focused on their attention, took longer to realize what was happening. In contrast, the boys, who were much less proficient at the game at first, and whose attention span was all over the place, picked up the changes much more quickly.
ace vladimir sloutskyfaculty member, Ohio State University and one of the researchers who conducted the study noted, adults tend to have a good sense of the rules of the world, including what is stable and what is highly dynamic. However, for little children, he said, “You just don’t know what is stable and what is dynamic.”
Since young children are still learning how the world works, including what changes frequently and what remains stable, having an attention span that wanders all over the place helps them notice all sorts of details that, once are older, they will learn to selectively filter as unimportant. However, in the beginning, when they are very young and still learning how the world works, this process of noticing everything and anything is an essential part of discovering what is important and what is not.
Wandering attention can be useful in very dynamic environments
For the most part, developing a selective approach is highly advantageous. “Adults don’t lose the ability to distribute attention, they just want to perform the task optimally, so they tend to focus their attention,” Sloutsky said. This includes developing the ability to focus in an academic or professional setting, which is incredibly important.
However, in some situations, it can be useful to let go of that selective focus and instead notice all sorts of random details, some of which may turn out to be unexpectedly important. For example, in a different country, with a different culture, there will surely be social expectations, such as removing shoes at the entrance., which might otherwise escape your attention. “In a new environment, you don’t know what’s important and what’s not, and that’s the key,” Sloutsky said.
Over time, children will learn to focus.
As Sloutsky points out, there is a distinct advantage in developing the ability to selectively focus on important details. “It’s not that adults get dumber as they get older, it’s that adults get efficient,” Sloutsky said. However, “sometimes there is a cost to this efficiency.”
Over time, children will learn to control their attention and gain the most important details. However, it is this process of noticing everything and anything, and flitting from one random detail to another, that is an important part of its development. “That’s how they learn,” Sloutsky said. “Yes, it’s difficult and frustrating, but there’s a reason it’s like that.”