DH(9/04) DS(12/08) and DD(5/11)
It sounds incredibly normal for a little boy, but especially one who has had a lot of freedom to do his own thing - both through your approach and also through being the oldest. He sounds incredibly like my oldest, who has always taken a very mechanical, practical, pragmatic approach to anything. Reading between the lines of your post, and based on my experience of one of these kids, my guess is that your son is probably incredibly self motivated and self-directed when he has an interest in something. You say he has no attention span-but what about when he is taking apart a car? Doing something of real interest to himself? Does he concentrate then? Being away with the fairies is a form of concentration, and quite an advanced one in some ways, the ability to tune out other junk and just be with your thoughts.
Honestly, when my son is doing something he finds interesting and he wants to do he seems to literally be unable to hear what is going on around him. He's 9 and you could certainly say he's in his own little world-the difference is that when one of these kids gets a little older, things start emerging from that world. For example, random example, he spent most of yesterday in his world-of-his-own and emerged in the evening with a two-part claymation videos and a bunch of math and physics questions from some textbooks he's reading-he'd already spontaneously tried to find answers on Khan Academy and couldn't.
(ETA-this, for clarity:) While we didn't do any formal reading work at all with him prior to age 7 I have to say as a caveat that he did turn out to have some reading issues (his reading is now functionally totally fine, though idiosyncratic in places. But he can read textbooks at an adult level, at age 9). But I would not have done anything differently with him, even if I'd known he had these issues, as IMO what he really benefitted from was that long period of play and exploration, of being exposed to stories audibly (mainly) and to a much lesser extent on the screen. It meant that when it did become time to sort out the reading he had some emotional reserves, strong motivation, and was cognitively possibly as ready as he would get. He also had a lot of experience of teaching himself to do things, and working with others to learn to do things he was interested in, so although his learning has never been one that always looks like learning, to have those years (and these years!) learning how he learns and getting on with it has been the most helpful thing.
I think the ability to retreat into your own little world is an amazing thing and one of the big gifts we can give our children is to honour that.
My 4.5 year old Dd is basically like your ds. She is not at all interested in actually learning to read. She loves being read to or listening to book apps on the ipad. She LOVES making things. Arts, crafts, and music is basically what her days are filled with. She sings, dances, talks to herself and plays with her older brother. She makes little figurines from clay and spends a lot of time making a mess in the bathroom. She can focus for a long time on art projects because that is really where her heart is. As for reading, she knows some numbers, asks how to spell things and how to write certain words. She knows how to write her name (she loves signing her art work!) She half knows her letters (capital letters) from ipad apps. She is a happy, very engaged, and thriving child so I am inclined towards leaving her completely alone.
Both your Ds and my Dd are normal but it can be nerve wracking to hear about other kids going to preschool and reading/pre-reading and doing some other academic stuff. I'd say, if you are planning to homeschool your kid, don't worry about it. I am not sure what the implications are if your ds then attends school. I imagine that is also okay but some may say otherwise.
Just to add. I had assumed above that you planned to homeschool long term. Just in case you are not, just wanted to say I personally, with my 20/20 hindsight would not stress it.
The thing is, first, reading is made up of a lot of different skils and the mechanics of turning the squiggles on the page onto something your brain understands as a word is quite a minor part. I'd say more important was the knowledge of grammar, syntax, convention, how stories work etc, which kids gain through normal conversations and being read to in whatever form. Second, as kids get older, for lots of reasons it gets easier to operate at the level of abstraction needed to really get, without endless repetition or fun bells and whistles, that when they see the letters d-o-g they correspond to the word "dog". Its a homeschool cliche that kids who start reading late read at their chronological age or above within months, weeks or days but it is also very true, and an incredibly widepread experience. The magic age seems to be around 7, with a few years of normal each side, but I've never seen any evidence that early reading per se gave children any later advantage in a setting where reading and writing were not used for learning.
So I'd spend this time building the other, probably more crucial, reading skills. Reading to him. Talking with him. Drawing and talking if he'll do it (my son never wouldm it was drawing OR talking). Its not lost time, he'll be that much more mature if you do need to teach him later and will have a really solid bank of skills and experiences to draw on.
Oh and just to add, the Waldorf systm does not teach reading til age 7 and their kids can read. And there is no magic to how to how they approach reading, its actually quite a dull (IMO) slow moving, highly kinaesthetic approach, but it gets them all reading, I suspect because, at 7, with a push most kids who have spent their formative years playing and listning to stories are ready to read and so the exact method doesn't matter greatly.
I've been having the same concerns about my son, who's 4 1/2 years old. He shows some interest in reading and his picked up the letters and sounds and all that, can write his name and several other letters well but is not interested in doing it very often, and he shows a lot of interest in numbers/math. He can count by 2s, 3s, 4s, 5s, 10s, or whatever, and can do basic addition/subtraction and even has figured out a little bit of simple multiplication. He did all this just from figuring it out on his own, so that's a pretty good argument for me to continue unschooling for the time being. I used to be a schoolteacher, so I constantly fight the urge to sit him down and do some "lessons" because I worry that he's not writing his numbers yet or that he's spending too much time playing Plants Vs. Zombies on the iPad (he's been obsessed with that particular game for two months now!), but I'm trying to relax. Oh, and he's not very interested in arts/crafts at all, so that worries me sometimes too! Should I just leave the kid alone and let him play? He did figure out that 25 times 8 is 200 by playing the zombie app, after all!
The answer to the question, "Should I just leave the kid alone and let him play?" for a 4.5yo is pretty much "yes", almost without exception and even without regard to the specific scenario. I'm sure I can drum up some situations where the answer might be "no", and very rightly so, I'm sure, but if a child is 4.5yo, play (instead of whatever else) is going to be an excellent option-- and most likely even the preferable option.
Give me a few minutes while I caffeinate.
The children described in this thread are really typical for their age. Play is exactly what a child that age learns and thrives the most from, and I think that's why it's such a strong natural drive. There's nothing to be gained by trying to get them to focus so young on learning specific things. If a child asks occasional questions about words or numbers, it only means that child has those few particular questions at the time - it doesn't necessarily mean he's ready or interested in studying or focusing on any of it yet.
It's not as if early mastery of those skills means they'll accumulate more knowledge or learning abilities by the time they're teens than children who don't start learning those things till age six or seven or older. Remember that four year olds aren't even school age yet. There are a number of links I put together on this (noncommercial) page to articles by homeschoolers who've already raised children, teachers, other professional educators, and authors of books having to do with education - and you'll find some pretty strong recommendations about encouraging play rather than early study at that age - preschool and kindergarten learning activities.
My son learned to read when he was seven. He was very bright and curious, but not the least bit curious about learning to read. I read lots of wonderful things to him, and he was happy and satisfied with that. I only got him started learning reading so he would be up to speed in a little 1st grade I'd enrolled him in, and it took very little time by that age. In his teens, he became a voracious reader, and continues to be as an adult. There are lots and lots of people like him who only wanted to play and explore as young children but entered into studies of various kinds as they got older - in fact, that's more common. So try to enjoy the benefits of the hindsight some of us can offer you, and just enjoy watching them play and grow during these very brief early golden years. It will fall into place in due time. ;) Lillian