A child’s short attention span can be something to behold. One moment, they are playing with their train, the next moment they’re spinning in circles, and now they are asking to watch a TV show, when all you want them to do is put their shoes away like you asked. However, as a 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 helpful when you don’t know the rules
In the study, researchers had two groups of participants—one made up of 4- and 5-year-olds, and the second made up of adults—play a computer game where they were asked to differentiate between two types of creatures, without being told which was which. To detect when their attention was wandering, researchers used eye-trackers to record where their focus was.
Half-way through the game, the feature that differentiated these two creatures changed without the participants being told that the rules changed. When this happened, the adults, who learned how to play the game much more quickly and were more focused in their attention, took longer to catch on to what was happening. In contrast, the kids, who were much less efficient at playing the game to begin with, and whose attention span was all over the place, caught on to the changes much more quickly.
As Vladimir Sloutsky, an Ohio State University faculty member and one of the researchers who conducted the study, pointed out, adults tend to have a good sense of the rules of the world, which includes what is stable and what is highly dynamic. However, for young children, he said, “you simply don’t know what is stable and what is dynamic.”
Since young children are still learning how the world works, which includes what changes often and what remains stable, having an attention span that wanders all over the place helps them notice all sorts of details that, once they are older, they’ll learn to selectively filter out as being 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 figuring out what is important and what isn’t.
Wandering attention can be helpful in highly dynamic environments
For the most part, developing a selective focus is highly advantageous. “Adults do not lose the ability to distribute attention, they just want to perform the task in an optimal way, so they tend to focus their attention,” Sloutsky said. This includes developing the ability to focus in an academic or professional environment, which is incredibly important.
However, in some situations, it can help 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 are bound to be societal expectations, such as removing your shoes at the doorway, that may otherwise escape your notice. “In a new environment, you don’t know what is important and what is not, and that is the key,” Sloutsky said.
Children will eventually learn to focus
As Sloutsky notes, there is a distinct advantage to developing the ability to selectively focus on the important details. “It’s not that adults become stupider when they grow up, it’s that adults become efficient,” Sloutsky said. However, “sometimes there is a cost to this efficiency.”
Eventually, children will learn how to control their focus, and pick up on the most important details. However, it’s this process of noticing everything and anything, and flitting from one random detail to another, that is an important part of their development. “That’s how they learn,” Sloutsky said. “Yes, it is hard and frustrating, but there is a reason it is that way.”
Disclaimer: This story is generated from RSS Feed and has not been created or edited by Waba News. Publisher: Lifehacker