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Wandering Minds

Hearing it's time to go to the park, your 3-year-old yelps with joy and races to her room for her sneakers. Ten minutes later she's still there, shoeless, changed into a party dress and building a block castle. What happened?

Often, a short attention span and an intense interest in her immediate surroundings causes a preschooler to lose focus when making the transition from one situation to another, says Rex Forehand, Ph.D., coauthor of Parenting the Strong-Willed Child. Also, kids this age understand "now" but not "15 minutes from now," so they resist getting ready for future activities. To help a poky toddler get from point A to point B:

  • Tell her specifically what she needs to do now for the next activity: get her coat to go to Grandma's house, clear her crayons from the table so there's room to bake cookies. Praise or thank her when she follows through.

  • "Sometimes we'd walk backward down the driveway, clap hands, or quack like a duck," says Nancy Curry, of O'Fallon, MO, of some of the games she tried to keep then 2-year-old Sammi on track. You can hop like a bunny to find her shoes, dance to the front door, or tiptoe all the way to the car.

  • Provide a soundtrack, suggests Marlene Barron, Ph.D., author of Ready, Set, Cooperate. To get a child to move quickly, sing a lively tune, such as "Yankee Doodle," or put on a fast-paced CD and match the music's rhythm as you help her get ready to go out.

  • If your child seems too absorbed in her play to change activities, distract her from what she's giving up by pointing out what she's getting. Curry found that offering Sammi special "jobs," such as pushing the garage door button or carrying her mom's purse to the car, helped persuade her to abandon her toys for her jacket and shoes.

  • Let her choose how to end her current activity. Would she like to put her doll down for a nap? Turn off the video by herself? Give a five-minute warning and set a timer so she can hear when she needs to move on.

  • If you're going someplace your child dislikes  -- such as the doctor's office, where she remembers getting a shot  -- promise that something fun will happen there or soon afterward: You'll read a story together in the waiting room or stop at the bakery on the way home. Used sparingly, such rewards are positive reinforcements, says Forehand, but since toddlers have shaky concepts of time, keep the interval between the dreaded activity and the treat short.

Most important, build time into your schedule to accommodate your child's leisurely pace. You'll both feel less rushed.