Let Infants Take the Lead During Playtime, Study Says

Head-mounted cameras enable psychologists to track how the movement of caregivers' eyes affect infants' attention. (Chen Yu)

When the toys are out in the playroom,  it’s time to put the smartphone away, according to a new study published in Current Biology.

Psychologists at Indiana University found that when parents focus their eyes on a toy, infants will also concentrate on it. The reverse is also true: If parents look away from the object,  children will similarly lose interest in it.

“The key is 10, 20 or 30 minutes of engaged play every day with a child," says Linda Smith, an IU psychology professor and the study's co-author. "When you think about how often parents interact with their children and you double that amount each day, you’re increasing the brain focus long-term."

The Lab as Playground

Researchers studied the relationship between infant attention span and caretaker involvement by mounting cameras on the heads of 36 one-year-olds and their parents. Scientists tracked the gaze of both parents and children during play sessions for six minutes.

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The sample consisted of 36 parent-infant duos, with the infants ranging in age from 11 to 13 months.

Most caregivers fell into two primary groups: those who let the children lead the play session and those who tried to direct it. Researchers did not give the parents any specific direction as to how they should interact.

Mutual Gaze Prolongs Babies' Attention Spans

The caregivers who were most successful in sustaining the children’s attention were those who followed a child’s natural interest in a toy and then jumped in by naming the object and encouraging play.

If both a child and parent initially paid attention to the same object for more than 3.6 second,  the infant’s gaze lingered an average of 2.3 second, or about four times,  longer than the gaze of babies whose parents averted their eyes sooner.

A Moment Makes a Difference

A few seconds may seem inconsequential. But when you multiply a few moments over and over in daily play sessions during a critical stage in mental development, it can make a profound difference, says Chen Yu, who led the study.

"The ability of children to sustain attention is known as a strong indicator for later success in areas such as language acquisition, problem-solving and other key cognitive development milestones."

The team will soon publish follow-up research looking at the children's development at age two. Yu says that study found that children with engaged parents had a larger vocabulary than children with parents who did not. Yu wouldn't disclose how many more words,  but he called the difference 'substantial.'

The shortest attention spans in the study were observed in a third group, in which caregivers weren't very engaged with the children. These distracted caregivers tended to sit back and not play along, or simply look elsewhere during the exercise.

"When you've got someone who isn't responsive to a child's behavior," Yu says, "it could be a real red flag for future problems." He cites Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder or behavior issues as potential outcomes for kids who don't learn to sustain focus.

Results Counter Traditional Thinking

Historically scientists thought biology was responsible for a child's attention span -- some babies are just born more inclined to stay focused. But the researchers contend their study shows that focus can be influenced and increased through social interaction.

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"Showing that what a parent pays attention to minute by minute and second by second actually influences what a child is paying attention to may seem intuitive," said Sam Wass, a University of Cambridge neuroscientist whose commentary appears in the same journal, "but social influences on attention are potentially very important and ignored by most scientists."

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