The Pinwheels at the Circus Go Round and Round: Thinking About Toddler Thinking
I recently took my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter to see a one-ring circus in the park. The performers strutted in to introduce the show. My daughter was leaning on the edge of the ring, her focus on the other children. It was as if a spotlight was on the other children—she didn’t seem to see or hear the clown joking with the crowd. The clown pointed out the band as they began to play. I saw my daughter’s focus shift to what I thought was the band. Was it the band? No. She was captivated by the movement of the decorative pinwheels attached to the stage. She wanted one. As the opening act began, I whispered, “Look! Those kids are on stilts!” She turned, looked up, then back at me. “Do we have any snacks?” she asked.
How different the circus must seem to her. She can’t tune out the distracting background crowd, their sounds, colorful outfits, parallel activities and movements. At this age her attention span, according to some experts, is around five minutes—much shorter than a circus act. According to the Too Small to Fail blog, her executive function skills, “keeping focused, staying calm and making sense of a complicated world,” are barely developed. This means that controlling the impulse to take the pinwheel, coping with her hungry stomach, remembering the storyline that the clown proposed, and to sustaining and shifting attention are much harder for her than for me.
A clown in a firefighter costume tried to rescue a cat from a pole. My daughter focused and followed the story. “She wants her cat down from there?” she asked me. I agreed and pointed out how the clown was helping. Over four minutes later, the cat was rescued. I looked over. My daughter was getting up to touch the pinwheel.
Over the course of the hour-and-a-half-long show, I watched her focus shift to and away from the circus. She watched the other children, the band, the trees in the park, and sometimes, the show. She concentrated better when there was an activity inviting action, like banging on the edge of the stage, and concentrated less well when jokes flew over her head. Just before the trapeze artist arrived, she simply ran off, her grandmother following closely behind.
When she returned a few minutes later I asked, “Did you see the lady in the air?” “What lady?” She asked me. She had made a friend with another two year old and had enjoyed holding hands. To her, it seems, the circus did not exist, even as everyone else stared at the woman hanging by her head in the air and spinning.
At the end of the show I asked my daughter about her favorite part. Was it the juggling? The clowns? The band? No. “I liked when I played with the other little girl. But she had to go home.” At two-and-a-half, the circus trip was no different from a playdate to the park. There is joy in holding hands, in smiling at a friend, in pinwheels. As parents, taking into account how different our children’s minds are from our own helps us check our expectations. Without an understanding of the big picture, what is a circus? A very unusual day at the park.
Although something appears to have stuck, because a week later my daughter asked me, “Do you remember the lady with the table on her feet?”
Julia Luckenbill, MA, is program coordinator at the Early Childhood Lab School at UC Davis.