Children are often required to sit still -- at school, for storytime, during meals -- and when they don't, we may think they're misbehaving, worry that we're doing something wrong, or fear that a behavioral problem is to blame. While kids are beginning to be able to focus for longer periods at ages 3 and 4, there's a wide range of wiggliness. "The ability to sit still is highly variable in preschoolers," says Parents advisor Wendy Sue Swanson, M.D., a pediatrician with The Everett Clinic in Mill Creek, Washington. "Anything from 15 seconds to 15 minutes can be normal." However, there are a few things you can do to help your restless little one stay put longer.
1. Let Him Fidget a Bit
2. Get Out
Ideally, children should spend at least an hour a day outdoors, notes Dr. Swanson. A recent study at Auburn University found that a single 30-minute stint of exercise helped preschoolers' ability to pay attention in class, compared with being sedentary. If possible, do something active just before your child will need to focus for a while -- like walking with him to preschool if it's nearby, or hitting the playground before church. When frigid temperatures just won't permit outside time, blow off excess energy when you can at a local indoor play place or the mall. Also, try to break up seated time with quick stretches or bursts of activity: hopping, jumping, or an impromptu dance party.
3. Be Patient
If your child won't stay still, to the point of irritating even her peers with her boisterousness or potentially putting herself in danger -- by darting into traffic, for example -- see your pediatrician. "When an attention span isn't increasing over time, it's worth checking in," says Dr. Swanson. A behavioral problem, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), could be the issue. Based on symptoms, your doctor may refer you to a developmental pediatrician or psychologist, a speech pathologist, or an occupational therapist for a thorough evaluation.
Read the article and view the featured video, "How to Calm Your Overactive Child."