It might affect their attention span, according to new research.

By Liz Steelman
Updated May 02, 2016
Jamie Grill / Getty Images

Think it’s harmless to check your e-mail or send a quick text as your infant plays? Well, you could be shortening your little one’s attention span. According to a new study from Indiana University, how a parent behaves during playtime can ultimately affect the child, too.

For the study, published in Current Biology, researchers mounted cameras on the heads of caregivers and their one-year-old children to track eye-movement. The families then sat across from each other and freely played with toys. Researchers observed playtime and eye movements from both the infant and the caregiver’s point of view. Overall, they found three dominant styles of play across the test families. Here’s what each play-type was, and the unique effect it had on the child’s demonstrated attention span.


For this type of play, a parent let the child take the lead—waiting until he or she showed interest in a certain toy and then engaging. “The responsive parents were sensitive to their children's interests and then supported their attention,” Chen Yu, lead study author, said in a statement. “We found they didn't even really need to try to redirect where the children were looking.” This type of play affected a child’s attention most positively: Once a parent and child paid attention to the same toy for more than 3.6 seconds, the child was more likely to continue to focus on that item, even when the caregiver directed attention somewhere else.


In this play-type parents tried to control their child’s interest. They held out a certain toys and named the objects, according to Yu. But the plan backfired. “You can actually see the children’s eyes wandering to the ceilings or over their parents’ shoulders—they’re not paying attention at all.”


Here, parents sat back, didn’t play along or looked somewhere else (e.g. at a smartphone or television) during playtime. It was the worst play-type for attention span development. Researchers found children in low-engagement play families paid attention only a fourth of the amount of time of the families who engaged in child-led play. “When you’ve got a someone who isn’t responsive to a child’s behavior,” Yu said, “it could be a real red flag for future problems.”

Though the attention span differences from each play type were only a few seconds in the study, it makes a big difference after multiple play sessions. Yu said research has shown that children who exhibit a longer attention span as an infant do better in school later in life.

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