Feeling distracted? Overwhelmed? Like your checklist keeps getting longer but you have less and less time to get it done? In a climate so full of distractions, the ability to concentrate on just one thing at a time, until it is complete or until you choose to move on, is both invaluable and at risk. The same is true for children, whose everyday lives are filled with "stimulation" that's supposed to help them learn or keep them entertained but may, instead, be keeping them from the ability to concentrate on their own.
You might not think of infants and toddlers as having noticeable attention spans. Indeed, we are often told to expect infants and toddlers to be scattered, with a limited ability to concentrate on any one thing for long. Research suggests, though, that infants begin concentrating in utero, at about 34 weeks, when they start to store information that they'll be able to remember later. In early infancy, children self-regulate the stimulation in their environments by closing their eyes or turning away. Between two and three months, infants are able to concentrate long enough to understand sequences and patterns. By four months old, infants can predict the direction a ball or toy will roll and will look ahead to where they expect it to land. Around this same time, infants' eyesight improves to be able to turn their attention between different stimuli more easily. By the end of their first year, infants can attend to a single toy for as long as a minute without distraction (that's longer than you'd think: go ahead, time it and see.) By the end of the second year, toddlers can attend for up to six minutes without distraction. Infants and toddlers are able to engage in activities for even longer- sometimes looking up or looking around, but returning to their activity to begin concentrating again.
Montessori classrooms support children's developing concentration through the design of the classroom. You'll notice that there the classrooms are visually sparse: neutral colors on the walls, simple wooden shelves. Your eye, when visiting an Infant or Toddler community, should feel drawn to the activities available, and not distracted by too much visual noise. Intentional use of color and a neutral background helps children to attend to the things in the classroom we want them to attend to: the activities and manipulatives rather than wildly colored or animated backgrounds. Likewise, you should notice that the materials are designed to be acted upon. You won't see electronic screens, toys with flashing lights or preprogrammed noise. We know that children's concentration is best supported through activities that give them real reactions to their actions, and we don't distract from that with loud, flashing stimulation. Infants and Toddlers have more sensitive hearing than older children and we don't want to encourage them to tune out the classroom, so we protect a quieter environment. Finally, we help to keep children's concentration focused by engaging with them in the activities they choose, monologuing for children what they are doing or observing, supporting their engagement by participating in it.
Most importantly, Montessori teachers understand that infant and toddler concentration is a skill to be practiced, not an absolute condition. We offer children extended time to complete tasks. We avoid rushing them along. We know that the opportunity to attend for a long period of time, even to a task that we could do more quickly, is more important than the task getting done right now. We are patient in the meantime, observing without intervening, describing without judgement. As with so many issues of development, we slow down, knowing that it's best that children have ample time to grow and learn in these critical foundational years. If you want children who can concentrate, you have to give them time to practice concentrating, first in small things, then in longer periods of time, without interruption, until they have mastered it themselves.