Shiso Mama recently sent us this question:
I've been working hard to encourage independent play, and would like to exercise more benign neglect with my 16-month old. He's free to explore most of the house, he has toys within reach, and he has cabinets to dig through in the kitchen while I cook. We have not purchased a lot of toys, opting for blocks and other wooden toys, books, and various props that we encourage him to "pretend" with like old telephones.
He seems to be doing okay for the most part, but I've been noticing that his attention span is short (not surprising) and he spends little time really playing with any of his toys. For example, I just can't get him interested in his blocks. Sometimes, he seems to get frustrated easily, but he's too impatient to have you help him. But for the most part, he'll pick up a toy, interact very briefly, and then move on to the next object. He's pretty active, and loves to run around, but sometimes it just seems like he's not interested in playing with real toys and only wants to explore.
Are we not providing the proper toys? We're not interested in buying a lot of toys, especially of the noise-making or plastic variety, but could be persuaded to consider a few more if that were the proper solution. We recently gave him a set of nesting bowls, and we were surprised to see him play with them for a solid 10 minutes, which he almost never does. We did notice that when he couldn't fit them in the proper order, he got mad and yelled. Is this kind of extended play a skill we need to teach him? I guess we have generally encouraged exploration more than play up until now.
First, I don't blame you for not wanting to buy a bunch of plastic, noisy toys designed (most likely) by people who don't have kids! Second, there's actually a lot going on with this question, so I'm going to break things down a bit.
Sustained Attention in Toddlers
As you say, it's not surprising your son's attention span is very short. The literature on this topic doesn't provide actual estimates for how long a 16-month old should be able to sustain attention on a given object because it really depends upon the toddler. But I will tell you that studies examining this question only provide their toddler subjects with 3 - 5 minute problem solving tasks, like nested bowls (Choudhury & Gorman, 2000; Ruff, Lawson, Parrinello, & Weissberg, 1990). So, the fact your son was able to sustain attention for a solid ten minutes on those bowls is great!
It should also be noted that sustained attention is linked to one's ability to inhibit physical activity or impulse control (Ruff, et al., 1990) Inhibition requires maturation of the brain's frontal lobes, which a toddler is only beginning to undergo (Eliot, 1999). If, on top of this lack of inhibition, your toddler has an active temperament, which it sounds like he has, then I especially wouldn't expect him to want to play with toys requiring him to be sedentary for very long!
Active Toys for Active Toddlers
It sounds like you've done a nice job providing your son with a child-friendly house for him to explore on his own. This is exactly what an active toddler (or any toddler, for that matter) needs.
However, you might also consider getting him one or two mobile toys. Push-toys, especially silent ones with containers attached, like lawnmowers (I'm thinking of one in particular, but I can't find the link!), are great for active toddlers. After pushing it around the house for a while, he might pick up those neglected blocks and put them in the lawnmower and deliver them to another location in the house. Or, he might just push them around for another 420 million laps. As he gets older, he'll become more interested in actually building with those blocks, but right now pushing them around might be just the thing to keep him engaged in extended play.
Explore First, Play Later!
That's not to say, however, that exploring itself, moving from location to location and item to item, is unimportant or should be discouraged. Exploring actually precedes play and is necessary for gathering information about the environment and the objects in it (Berger, K.S., 2005). At some point, he'll be less interested in exploring the house and all its objects (been there! done that!) and begin to single out items to play with for extended periods. (Keeping in mind, of course, that the extended period will still be quite short!) But right now he's also probably delighting in the mastery of his motor skills.
Emotion Coaching Helps Problem Solving
As toddlers engage in more problem solving tasks, like the nested bowls, they can feel very frustrated with the process. They're impatient because something isn't working, but they don't want help. Times like this are actually a great opportunity to help children begin the process of understanding and managing their own emotions.
When your son cries out in frustration, label that emotion for him. You can get down to his level and say, "Frustrated? You feel frustrated, don't you?" By doing this, you not only provide a simple label for a complex feeling, but you also demonstrate empathy. And even if he's not very verbal yet, after a few times, he'll make the association between his feeling and the word "frustration." You'll find, after a little time, that just saying the label will have a soothing effect, enabling him to recover from the incident much more quickly. The idea here is that the label engages the language center located in the brain's left lobe, which is also the center of logic. This may help the child to focus and become more calm, enabling better problem solving (Gottman, 1997)!
Offering Help to the Independent Toddler
Finally, as your son recovers from feeling frustrated, ask him, "Help? Do you want help?" He may shake his head, or he may actually want you to help him. If it's the latter situation, then give him words he can use (even if he's not yet talking), "Say, 'Help, please!'" Then proceed to help him with his task.
When you first start emotion coaching and offering help, your son may just cry and be resistant. This is totally normal. Just keep at it! As the association between the label and his feeling is made, he'll feel better knowing mommy understands him. (Obviously, he won't understand this conceptually, but that will be his experience!)
Berger, K.S. (2005). The Developing Person Through the Life Span. New York, NY: Worth Publishers.
Choudhury, N. and Gorman, K.S. (2000). The relationship between sustained attention and cognitive performance in 17-24-month old toddlers. Infant and Child Development, 9, 127-146.
Gottman, J. (1997). Raising and Emotionally Intelligent Child. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Ruff, H.A., Lawson, K.R., Parinnello, R., and Weissberg, R. (1999). Long-term stability of individual differences in sustained attention in the early years. Child Development, 61, 60-75.