Getting and Keeping Your Little One’s Attention

Some expert advice for making arts-related outings little-one friendly


Family outings can be quite the task with preschoolers in tow, especially when their attention spans are as short as lines to see the Mona Lisa are long. Whether you’re headed to a concert or museum, cries of “I want to go home!” or “I’m bored” will have you dashing towards the exit faster than the person next to you can say “Shhh!” But your child loves arts and crafts and dancing around to music at home, so what‘s the problem?

First, it’s key to understand what kids this age are like: “Three- and four-year-olds have an attention span ranging from 3 to 15 minutes—and that’s when they’re totally engrossed, so it’s really not fair to expect your preschooler to sit patiently through a jazz concert or a play—even if it’s geared towards his age” says Dr. Jayne Bellando, associate professor of pediatric psychology at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

“Additionally, your child is still developing self-control and coping skills and hasn’t yet mastered his vocabulary enough to convey what he wants (probably to leave the jazz concert and make a beeline for the playground). Instead, he uses whining, crying, kicking, and screaming to get his point across himself— especially if he’s sleepy or hungry.” Not exactly music to your ears.

Luckily, experts say arts-related trips are doable, and can even be enjoyable. If an outing is on your family’s agenda, use these four tips to keep meltdowns at bay—and keep your child’s attention focused.

Keep it short. Today isn’t the day to tour two floors of the museum. Choose one kid-friendly exhibit (the more hands-on activities, the better) and then call it a day. Of course, you won’t be able to control the length of some outings—such as the duration of a musical performance—so have an exit plan in mind. Look up the running time before you go. If it’s on the lengthy side, consider choosing aisle seats so you can duck out for your own personal intermissions without disturbing other members of the audience.

Do your prep work. Preschoolers love structure; it makes them feel safe and gives them something predictable to look forward to at a time in their lives when they really don’t have any control of what they do or where they go. Outings to a local arts exhibit or theater performance break the familiar routine. While it may seem obvious to arrange the excursion so that it doesn’t disrupt naps, mealtimes, or bedtimes, it’s also important to explain to your preschooler what to expect so that the new experience doesn’t take her by surprise and result in a tantrum.

On the car ride over, spell it out in kid-friendly terms: “Right before Mary Poppins starts, the room will get dark. Then there will be bright lights, like giant flashlights, on the stage. Once those turns on, it’s important to be as quiet as we can so we don’t disturb the actors!” Remind her of the protocol once you reach your seats. By the time the lights dim, she’ll know the drill.

Avoid lines. Start your outing off on the right note by making sure you don’t have to linger in a ticket queue for too long. “Preschooler’s don’t have a good grip on time, so if you tell your child that you need to wait 15 minutes to get into the art museum, to him that feels like an eternity and he’s going to become impatient,” says Carl Arinaldo, author of Essentials of Smart Parenting. Translation: You will have lost any chance of having an enjoyable visit before you even step foot in the building. Your best bet is to call ahead to find out when the wait is estimated to be the shortest.

Remember to recap. Once you’re home, have a discussion with your child about the event. Ask him about his favorite part of the day and highlight good behavior, advises Arinaldo. (“Remember how quiet you were during the play? You did such a great job!”) Not only will this help further engage your preschooler in the experience, but the praise will encourage her to behave the next time you have an outing.

If a lack of interest or full on outburst forces you to leave early, don’t feel dismayed. “Remember to look at the long-term goal,” says Dr. Bellando. “This isn’t about getting your child to sit through her first ballet performance or sit mesmerized in front of a Monet painting. The objective is to establish a life-long appreciation for the arts.” And today was one step in the right direction.



Rachel Morris

Editors & Producers

Lisa Resnick
Content Editor

Tiffany Bryant
Assistant Manager, Audience Enrichment


Dr. Jayne Bellando
Associate professor of pediatric psychology at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences

Carl Arinaldo
Author of Essentials of Smart Parenting

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