NPR reported the fascinating results of a study on children’s attention spans. It found that Maya kids who grew up in Guatemala paid attention at twice the rate of the American kids who grew up in California. (No California jokes, please.)
Here’s the experiment: Researchers bring a pair of kids, age 5-11, into a room. The instructor tells Kid #2, “I’m going to show Kid #1 how to use this toy. Then, I’ll show you how to make an origami mouse.” (The mouse is a completely different activity from the toy.) Researchers are actually studying how much attention Kid #2 pays when not directly instructed.
They ran the experiment on kids with two different backgrounds: white middle-class kids from California, and Maya children raised in Guatemala. The difference between the children’s attention spans was stark.
Kids have to learn to learn.
Well, the conclusion of the scientists is that when kids grow up with autonomy they learn to learn—they perk up and pay attention to things they might need or want to know. Things like how to make the stuff the grownups make, and do the stuff they do. How to play games their older siblings are playing. How to get to places.
Whereas when kids grow up in an environment where they are told what to do and how to do it (think everything from high-stakes tests to Little League batting practice) and they aren’t even allowed to choose where they go or how to get there (because they’re usually taken places by adults)— children’s attention spans turn off. They simply await instruction.
Barbara Rogoff, one of the psychologists who completed the study, explains it like this. “Maya children also learn how to manage their own attention, instead of always depending on adults to tell them what to pay attention to.” Rogoff, who is a professor at the University of California Santa Cruz, also added, “It may be the case that [some American] children give up control of their attention when it’s always managed by an adult.”
American kids can do it too.
We are almost positive that next year a book will appear: “Raising Kids the Mayan Way.” But it’s not that parents have to move to Central America to re-grow their children’s attention span. The key is simple, local, and old-fashioned: Give them some free time, and some responsibility. Let them figure out what they want to do, and how they want to do it. And expect them to help out.
We have been told that free time is wasted time when kids could be “learning” something else. But if we want kids to be engaged, attentive, excited about life— absorbing it, putting the pieces together, consider this: Free time is learning to learn time.
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