Play it again, Mam
You might never want to hear the words to 'Wheels on the Bus' ever again, but it's important to recognise the role repetition plays in children's learning, writes Dearbhala Cox Giffin
Toddlers and young children love repetition. They like to repeat songs, actions and rhymes; they will listen to the same story ad nauseam (and they will know every word off by heart) and they will play the same game over and over again.
Repetition is a child's way of learning and processing what is happening around them and is essential to the physical development of the brain: it is fun for them and provides the practice that children require to learn and master new skills, while helping them to retain information. Children also love repetition because they can anticipate what is going to happen, what words come next, and so it provides familiarity. Most children do not like uncertainty so repetition through play and daily routine give them a sense of security. However, it is important that it is child-initiated repetition and not adult-directed, so that they are enjoying learning at their own pace through seeing, hearing, doing… and then repeat.
Think back to when you learned to ride a bike, drive a car, how to knit or play a new sport. You started with the basics and broke down the task to learn the essential skills. Then it was all about practice and more practice until you'd increased your confidence, improved your speed, became skilled and the activity became second nature. It is the same for babies and young children, as repetition and practice are the key to any learning. As adults, we often tire of repetitive activities but not so for young children, because it is through repetition that possibility becomes ability. We are constantly looking for new stimulation, whereas children get all they need by doing the opposite. It is this love of repetition that forms the foundation for early learning and exploration, and provides a more comprehensive understanding of concepts. The more something is repeated, the more likely children are to remember it.
Repetition for babies and toddlers
Repeating words and actions over and over (and over) again helps babies and toddlers to learn a routine, the sequence of events and the consequence of an action. Babies learn from a very young age that if they throw a cup from the high chair, it will fall to the ground. They will do this repeatedly, not to annoy you but to learn about cause and effect. Toddlers love to build a tower and then immediately knock it down, build it up again and knock it down - again, it's all about cause and effect. Adults may begin to get impatient, but remember that a toddler's brain development is being strengthened through this repetition. Babies and young toddlers need to do this to help them remember information and build their memory.
Repetition for young children
Repetition of a song, a game or an activity helps to consolidate young children's understanding and learning. They also love to feel a sense of accomplishment and achievement and have that inner feeling of fulfilment and satisfaction when they have mastered a skill. Children's repetitive behaviour provides them with the opportunity to indulge in their interests, helps improve speed, increases self-confidence and strengthens the connections in the brain that help children learn. Having mastered a new skill through repetition, they will move on to another activity when they are ready.
Reading and repetition - how repetition helps the development of language
Children will tend to choose the same story again and again. Don't worry that they choose the same book, as it's not always the number of books but the repetition of each book that leads to greater learning. As children hear the book being read over and over, they will memorise the story and the sequence of events and will begin to say words that they remember. If you have ever tried to skip a page in a familiar book, you will know that children will alert you about the skipped page and will make sure that you read the story from cover to cover. They're thinking about the story and know what to expect and, after reading a book many times, children will often remember it well enough to help finish the story with you.
As children mature, they begin to try to use the words and say full sentences as an adult is reading to them. Asking children questions about what they see and building upon their answers often kickstarts their use of words and extends their thinking.
Some books provide intentional fun repetition and rhyming - such as many of the Dr. Seuss books - so that children can focus on the rhyming word and then join in saying the same word when it is repeated on each page. These are great fun to read with young children and you will all enjoy lots of giggles.
Dearbhala Cox Giffin is Director of Childcare at Giraffe, giraffe.ie
Ways to support your child's love of repetition…
Give your baby some everyday items instead of toys, such as a wooden spoon, a set of plastic bowls or a cardboard paper-towel tube. These will entertain your child and give them plenty of opportunities in holding, nesting, stacking and many other skills that can only be perfected through repeated practice.
For your toddler, provide lots of items that can be filled, dumped and refilled, such as jugs of rice or sand. Toddlers also like to stack cups and blocks, knock them over and then stack them up again.
Play peekaboo and guessing games with your baby or toddler. Hide toys under different items to see if your child can find them.
Use your child’s love of repetition for your benefit and develop a routine. Routines can help with mealtimes, bath, bedtime and other transitions. If you repeat the same activities each night, your child will know what to expect and is more likely to follow through with less fuss.
When reading your child’s favourite story over and over, vary your voice. Giving each character its own voice and register gives your baby a chance to hear different sounds and encourages your child to practise making the sounds themselves.
Read fun rhyming books with your child such as Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae and Guy Parker-Rees or Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin Jr. Extend the story by using puppets or dance with your child.