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Children demonstrate the emerging ability to process stimuli, focus and sustain attention, and maintain engagement in accordance with social and cultural contexts.

The ability to think, retrieve, and remember information, and to solve problems is dependent on the development of attention, or the ability to focus on something in the environment.1 Attention regulation is closely related to children’s culture, cognitive abilities, and the caregiver-child relationship. Children build their capacity to attend and focus through interactions with their caregivers. Therefore, caregivers should interact in ways that are meaningful for each particular child. The way caregivers interact with children depends on their cultural context. For example, some cultures respond to children’s behaviors by following their lead, while other cultures direct children’s attention to a particular activity or object.2 Children will increase their ability to stay focused through these interactions, and this ability will continue to improve as they get older.

Children also build the capacity to attend as their ability to habituate matures. Habituation refers to becoming accustomed to the stimuli occurring in the environment. For example, a two-month-old may become uncomfortable and cry if the lights are too bright, and the noise level is too high. An older toddler may be able to ignore the surrounding noises and stay engaged in a self-directed activity. Caregivers can modify the environment to provide the best setting possible for interaction and play. Usually less stimulation with different objects, sounds, and sights leads to better concentration and learning. It is important to remember that young children cannot attend for very long periods of time and caregivers should adjust their own expectations according to children’s developing abilities.

Attention and Play

Play is how young children learn. In order to build their attention skills, children benefit from a balance of exploration, choices, and meaningful interactions. Allowing children to freely explore their environment gives them the opportunity to discover new objects and experiences. Children then begin to build attention skills as they figure out what they are seeing and touching. Providing children with choices also helps them learn to attend. For example, caregivers can set out a few objects during play time, which the child can choose to engage with. Providing a limited number of choices allows them to attend and focus on one or two objects, instead of trying to block out distractions. Finally, the interactions, not the objects, are what meaningfully help children in furthering their attention building. Caregivers have to find the right balance between supporting and interacting with children in order for them to explore, discover, and learn from their play.

Birth to 9 months

Children are attempting to process an abundance of new stimuli every day. Children are also building their internal capacity for sustained attention and regulation through interactions with their co-regulating other.

Indicators for children include:

  • Focuses on objects in the environment during alert states
  • Initiates and briefly maintains social interactions with adults, e.g., establishes eye contact, coos to receive attention
  • Explores environment through senses, e.g., touches and mouths objects
  • Focuses attention on novel objects and familiar caregiver(s)
  • Plays with one object for a few minutes before focusing on a different object

Strategies for interaction

  • Engage face to face with the child during the day; smile, coo, and laugh
  • Ensure the child is in a relaxed and alert state when interacting
  • Provide interesting toys, books, and other objects for the child to explore
  • Always provide a variety of options during exploration, e.g., three or four different toys on the blanket
  • Join child in exploration to help expand and sustain attention

7 months to 18 months

Children begin to have shared interests with others and are building a capacity for purposefully attending to objects and people. Children also begin to hold sustained attention for increasing amounts of time as they are quicker to organize and habituate to stimuli in their environment.

Indicators for children include:

  • Engages in joint attention with a caregiver, e.g. joins in looking at the same object or shifts gaze to where someone is pointing
  • Maintains more advanced levels of engagement, e.g., repeats actions over and over when enjoying the reaction and result of the experience
  • Focuses on one object or activity for a brief period of time, even with other objects close in proximity; still easily distracted
  • Shifts attention from adults to peers
  • Relies on routines and patterns to maintain an organized state in order to focus

Strategies for interaction

  • Spend quality time with the child sharing in activities such as reading and playing with toys
  • Support and extend interactions, e.g., demonstrate different ways an object can be used; limit distractions
  • Provide uninterrupted time for the child to play and explore his or her surroundings
  • Create an environment that does not overwhelm the child with too many colors, sounds, and objects; limit choices
  • Provide predictable routines within the day, e.g., story time right after lunch

16 months to 24 months

Children begin to focus and attend for longer periods of time, in particular while engaged in self-created and goal-directed play. Children also have an increased internal capacity to organize and plan while attending and focusing.

Indicators for children include:

  • Works to find solutions to simple problems and/or obstacles, e.g., attempts to climb onto a piece of furniture in order to retrieve a toy
  • Works on solving increasingly difficult activities, e.g., attempts to solve a simple, three-piece puzzle
  • Remains focused for longer periods of time while engaged in self-initiated play
  • Attends and stays engaged to often reach a goal, e.g., places all the shapes in the shape sorter

Strategies for interaction

  • Provide uninterrupted time for the child to work on activities that interest him or her, e.g., avoid interrupting or intervening when the child actively engages with an object, person, or activity
  • Remain available for the child and respond promptly if he or she asks for help
  • Create an environment that does not overwhelm the child with too many colors, sounds, and objects; limit choices
  • Help expand attention through extending interactions that are interesting to the child

21 months to 36 months

Children begin to attend to, engage in, and transition between multiple activities or interactions at a time. Children also have an increased internal capacity to discriminate and strategize while focusing and attending, and can remain focused for longer periods of time.

Indicators for children include:

  • Attention expands and stays focused on an activity or object even when distractions are present
  • Uses self-talk to extend play, e.g., says “now sleepy” to the baby doll after feeding it a bottle
  • Plays independently before moving on to a new activity, e.g., engages in block play, reads a book
  • Wait time increases, e.g., participates in turn-taking activities
  • Transitions between what he or she is engaged in and what is happening in the background, e.g., makes a comment in regard to a conversation happening between another child and adult, while engaged in completing a puzzle

Strategies for interaction

  • Observe the child during play and limit adult-directed interruptions while engaged
  • Engage in play with the child; create games that encourage the child to find certain objects in the environment
  • Provide independence for the child to problem-solve and discover while engaged in play
  • Create a quiet space and limit distractions for children to attend and focus
  • Focus on extending the child’s experiences through the interaction between adult and child instead of focusing solely on objects

Real World Story

Luke is an 18-month-old toddler who is engaged in attempting to place shapes in the shape sorter. Suddenly, he hears another object on the other side of the room start to play music. He moves away from the shape sorter and walks toward the music object. He pushes the buttons on the new object and observes them for a brief period. His caregiver, Sarah, walks into the room and gestures for him to join her. Luke walks to the other side of the room and first picks up the shape sorter before walking back over to Sarah. He hands it over to Sarah. Sarah says, “Oh, you want me to play with you?” Sarah sits down on the floor, as Luke does the same. Sarah empties the shape sorter and grabs one shape and drops it into the bucket. Luke then begins to do the same, one shape at a time. When he is done, he hands the shape sorter to Sarah. She empties it out and begins again. Luke finishes placing all the shapes in the sorter and then stands up. He walks away and begins to play with a toy car. Sarah watches him, but does not engage with him.

THIS EXAMPLE HIGHLIGHTS how young children use objects to engage and maintain engagement with their caregivers, and how caregivers can structure interactions to support children in attending to items. Luke plays independently, but is interrupted by another object that catches his attention. When he sees his caregiver, Sarah, he walks back to the shape sorter and hands it to her. Clearly, Luke is still interested in the shape sorter but may need more interaction to remain interested. He is easily distracted by other objects in the room. However, once Sarah sits with him, he is completely engaged, and is able to maintain this engagement by handing Sarah the shape sorter again. Once he is done, he simply disengages from the interaction by walking away. Sarah supports Luke’s play by following his lead. She waits for Luke to initiate and lead the interaction, and he does. Sarah also knows that if he wants her to share in the interaction with the toy car, he will reach out to her once again.

Discover how this Real World Story is related to:


  1. Shonkoff, J. & Phillips, D. (Eds.). (2000). From neurons to neighborhoods: The science of early childhood development. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press. Online version
  2. Sheese, B.E., Rothbart, M.K., Posner, M.I., White, L.K., & Fraundorf, S.H. (2008). Executive attention and self-regulation in infancy. Infant Behavior Development, 31(3), 501–510.

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About this resource

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Reviewed: 2012