Adults Focus More, Young Children Notice More

A new study shows that while adults find focusing on a task easy, children notice more than adults do because their focus isn't as strong.

Although adults are better at paying attention to things, children notice and remember more. A new study from The Ohio State University have found that adults are better at focusing on things they are instructed to focus on than children, but that children given the same tests notice more details overall, and remember them.

This study involved 35 adults and 34 children who were 4 to 5 years old. The participants were shown images of two shapes on a computer screen, with one shape overlaying the other. One of the shapes was red and the other was green, and the participants were asked to pay attention to a shape of a particular color. The shapes disappeared for a quick moment and another screen with the shapes appeared, and the participants had to tell the researchers whether the shapes in the new screen were the same as the previous screen.

Sometimes both shapes stayed the same, sometimes the target shape changed, and sometimes the non-target shape changed. The adults were a little bit better at the task of determining whether the target shape had changed, but the children noticed when the non-target shape changed much more often than the adults did.

According to Vladimir Sloutsky, one of the researchers, this may be because “children are extremely curious and they tend to explore everything, which means their attention is spread out, even when they’re asked to focus. That can sometimes be helpful.”

Considering that children need to take in a lot of information quickly in their early lives, this isn’t all that surprising. Imagine how much information comes at them every second of every day, and think about how much of that is actually necessary information. Children may have a harder time focusing on specific details, but they’re better served by taking in a lot of details at once.

But this also means that they’re prone to getting distracted, which can work against them in educational environments. Exactly when children develop the ability to stay focused that is required for hyper-specialized work in modern society is unclear yet. But what is clear is that getting upset with children for being distracted is not only pointless, but most likely damaging.

This new information should give us something to think about, with our detail-focused adult brains, regarding classroom environments. Perhaps it would be easier to teach young children in less stimulating environments, with fewer distractions.

“Children can’t handle a lot of distractions,” said Sloutsky. “They are always taking in information, even if it is not what you’re trying to teach them. We need to make sure that we are aware of that and design our classrooms, textbooks, and educational materials to help students succeed.”

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