Press Repeat: Why Repetition is Smart for Toddlers

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There she goes again. Once more down the slide. “After each landing, she squealed with excitement and said ‘do again,’” recalls Rhonda

Brown, Ph.D., associate professor of Early Childhood Education, Human Development & Psychology at the University of Cincinnati. She remembers how much her oldest daughter loved the slide at the Countryside YMCA’s pool when she was around 2 years old.

   For toddlers (and to many parents’ dismay), early childhood and repetition go hand-in-hand. Parents can recite board book rhymes from memory, serve up chicken nuggets at every meal and work simple jigsaw puzzles blindfolded. This is toddler paradise. According to Brown, there’s no such thing as too much of a good thing in a toddler’s world.

 

THE TASKMASTER

Cincinnati mom Sarah Hunt babysits her 2-year-old niece and says she will get two Duplo blocks, one in each hand, and say, “OH NO!” Then, she puts them together and says, “TA DA!” Over-and-over-and-over again.

   Much is changing at this stage of development. From infancy to early childhood, Brown says, “The brain is rapidly generating connections, which are strengthened or pruned, based on experiences.” Repetition generates and strengthens these connections. “Complex skills, like reading, rely on connections between many brain regions that are established through exposure and practice.”

   Everything is brand new, making every part of a toddler’s day a learning experience. Mastery and competence are important to a toddler. So is acknowledgment and praise. A child wants to know you’re proud of what he or she can do. John Hutton, M.D., F.A.A.P., clinical research fellow at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, owner of the Blue Manatee bookstore and author of the Baby Unplugged book series says, “Toddlers have a strong sense of wanting to make choices and master new skills.” Welcome to the proverbial “terrible twos.” Not being naughty, but wanting to take charge.

   Hutton says, “When they are going through these routines over-and-over again (routine being the keyword) it’s comforting for them to have something they can do the way that THEY want to do it. All while getting positive feedback about it.”

   Brown agrees. “It is important for parents to remember that toddlers and preschoolers aren’t in control of most of what happens to them during the day. When a child gets to choose something they want to, like work their favorite puzzle or read their favorite book, they are going to do that for as long as they can get away with it.”

   “The gradual development of a skill is the ‘scaffolding’ of the early years,” says Hutton, “and it aids the mastery.” Sometimes it may be hard to see the progress of a skill and toddlers may have strong reactions when they don’t “get it” as quickly as they’d hope. To a parent, it may look like monotonous repetition followed by a meltdown, but rest assured, your toddler is making mental notes. A puzzle that begins as a struggle to figure out, will become a joy for the child to piece together in different sequences.

 

LITERACY

Parents have a lot of reading under their belts and the repetition can get boring, but your little one is learning everything there is to know about a book. Gina Heeg from Northern Kentucky is a grandmother now but she can still recite the books her son loved as a child. Most parents can name a well-loved children’s story they know by heart. Hutton says this is because a child “is processing beyond the layers of the story. Kids are understanding how books work.”

   They are learning that spoken words correlate to words on a page. That pages are turned right-to-left but words are read left-to-right. That illustrations bring words to life but their imagination fills in the blanks.

   Parents can help their child’s early literacy and also break up the monotony for themselves. Brown says, “It’s important for parents to make shared reading time as interactive as possible.” Hutton agrees. He encourages parents to “take the story beyond the text in the book.” He suggests talking about what’s going on in the pictures. Brown encourages parents to infuse personality and use different voices for different characters. She says to change the reading pace with the events of the story.

   Both encourage parents to ask the child questions and create opportunities for discussions during the story. Encourage predictions and note changes in emotions. Reading fosters empathy and talking about the story will not only help a child meet her early literacy goals it will also expand their vocabulary and speaking skills.

   Parents may be surprised to see their child’s understanding of the same book grow and change. Answers to the same questions may vary as a child considers all of the possibilities in a simple picture book. Also, if a child knows a story so well after reading it so many times, hand the book to him. Let him ‘read’ it to you. Even if it’s just pretend. Brown says, “When a child has heard a story so many times that she knows every word, it shows that she has mastered an important language and literacy activity, which develops her a sense of accomplishment, or self-efficacy.”

 

SECURITY

Adults know what it’s like to feel more comfortable in their own homes and with their own stuff. The same is true for toddlers. Brown says, “Having familiar people, objects, and routines helps young children develop a sense of security and predictability in their worlds.” They are trying to figure out the world around them and knowing some things for sure is comforting. Giving children choices can also help them feel secure and in control. Even if a parent is bored of the same book Brown says, “Letting children choose books, even if they aren’t what we would choose, encourages their love of reading and allows them to experience some low-stakes control.” Hutton agrees. He suggests letting them choose between two books to make it less overwhelming. It helps with their confidence as well.

   Many things are going on in the world that can distract us from one another. Hutton says a reading routine lets a grownup and toddler spend time together. “It does reinforce that sense of time that translates into love.” When a kid gets to pick out a book and sit down to read, it says, “I’m really important to this grown up.”

   Hutton also says, “It’s an opportunity for the parent to also slow down and say ‘Wow, this is really meaningful.’ It helps cement that bond.”

   Even if it’s at the same time and place each day with, yep, the same book.

 

DO IT AGAIN!

Whether it’s reading a book until it’s dog-eared or building with blocks until they’re frayed, if your child wants to do it again and again, that’s good … only, maybe not so much when it comes to screen time. Hutton says movies and TV are useful when a child is overwhelmed and needs time to calm down, but look for programming that’s more than passive.

   Brown agrees and suggests that parents “consider the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics regarding media use during early childhood, which includes:

  • Limiting exposure to one hour per day of high-quality programming
  • Interaction with caregivers during co-viewing
  • Designate screen-free time and screen-free bedrooms

Bonnie Jean Feldkamp is a writer, wife, and mom of three kids whose ages span two decades. Her work has appeared in the New York Times; Brain, Child Magazine; Scary Mommy and more. Her Cincinnati Family mom blog earned Best Overall Blog in the 2017 Ohio Society of Professional Journalists Awards. Find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @WriterBonnie or on her website at WriterBonnie.com.

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