Developing attention is like building muscle strength. It develops some with age but it develops better with the correct conditions such as exercise. If children are presented only with flashy materials which require no mental effort, it is like depriving muscles of exercise. Mental exercise has even been shown to have positive effects on the elderly. Some suggestions for helping children and references are given in Gloria DeGaetano's article, Visual Media and Young Children's Attention Spans, published by the Media Literacy Review: Media Literacy Online Project, College of Education, University of Oregon. One of her references is the insightful book, Endangered Minds, by Jane M. Healy.
When concentration is needed, cut down on the number of distractions.
Read aloud to children without stopping every few pages to discuss things. Let them follow the broader scope of the story itself. Remember radio and books on cassettes? The sound effects are cool. Listeners have to form mental images and they have to concentrate. People who record these are adept in grabbing and keeping the attention of the listener.
Sometimes, reading instruction involves stopping to predict what will happen or to clarify vocabulary. This can help comprehension but it is good to enjoy some stories with all of the momentum and excitement which the writer designed.
Encourage children to read longer books not just short ones. Reading contests which reward children for the number of books read can defeat the purpose. We even had a fifth grader with good reading skills try to get credit for a Dr. Seuss book! It has been my experience that the best reading contests are ones which give credit for reading a certain amount of time daily. This way, the slow readers can compete with the fast readers and this cuts down on cheating. The youngest children only read 15 minutes daily.
Encourage children to talk about things they have done and things they have read.
Limit the number of hours spent with TV, videos, and other spectator entertainment.
Select toys, games, and activities which require mental challenges or just physical activity, e.g. a puzzle, Lego blocks, hop scotch, jump rope, coloring books or blank paper and crayons, a trip to a children's museum, a walk with you in the neighborhood or the park as you discuss what you see, etc.
Encourage viewing programs which encourage thinking and focusing attention such as Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.
Remember Mister Roger's song about I like to take my time? That song has a lot of good advice to parents about giving children some free time of their own. You'll find many helpful songs in Mister Rogers' Songbook.
Fondly remembering Mr. Rogers: Fred McFeely Rogers was born in 1928 in Latrobe, PA; he died of cancer on February 27, 2003, at his home in Pittsburgh, PA. He was chairman of Family Communications, Inc. It is a nonprofit company which he formed in 1971 to produce Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. His goal was to encourage the healthy emotional growth of children and their families. His program is the longest running program on public television. Visit the Biography page of Family Communications, Inc. to learn more about Mister Rogers' background. The world will miss Mister Rogers and be grateful for all he has given us. He made the neighborhood a better place!
You might also like to see some of my articles about relaxation, fear, etc.