Theory and practice

Play. Learn. Repeat: The Power of Repetition in the Early Years

It isn’t always about trying to find the next best toy or activity.
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June 27, 2023
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In a rush? Here’s the quick run-down.

  • You may think that repeating the same book, nursery rhyme or activity is repetitive and boring, but actually, repetition is one of the best things you can do to support little ones’ development.
  • Children are constantly surrounded by new stimuli, so repetition offers them familiarity and predictability that allows them to feel more comfortable to experiment, engage, and interact. This also allows them to feel more self-confident and self-sufficient.
  • You will learn about how to create a balance of repetition and newness in order to foster their growth and learning.

The importance of repetition and patterns for children

We get it. It can be pretty hard to get excited to read the exact same story, sing the exact same nursery rhyme, or do the exact same activity for the umpteenth time.  But we’re here to tell you that that is actually exactly what you should be doing! Repetition is not boring but is actually essential and beneficial to development in early childhood.

To the little ones, repetition and doing the same thing over and over is not dry and boring but is actually comforting and familiar. This comfort and familiarity makes them more willing and eager to explore and engage, and have different experiences with the same activity and stimuli.

Play. Learn. Repeat. That’s what it’s all about.

Why children like repetition, and how it helps them learn

Whether you’re a caregiver, an educator or a manager looking to explain the importance of repetition to your staff, the first step is understanding what repetition is to a child, and why it matters.

To us, repeated experiences are boring because it is reliving the same thing over and over again. There is nothing new, and nothing that isn’t expected. But in their early years, children don’t find repetition boring because each time they do it, engage with it, sing it, touch it, listen to it, and so on, they experience it in a new way.

Simply and importantly, to a child, repetition is not just the same thing twice.

Consider it like this:

  • Young children are constantly surrounded by people, places, experiences, materials and objects they don’t understand or have never seen before.
  • As a result, their days are filled with confusion and uncertainty.
  • So while older children and adults may search for novelty and find new experiences exciting, it makes sense that children in their early years search for understanding, familiarity and predictability.
  • Repetition is valuable because each time they experience something the knowledge becomes more secure, which allows them to feel more self-confident 

Even as adults, there are certain activities that we enjoy repeating because we also have new experiences with the same stimuli.

For instance, do you now have a completely different perspective on The Little Mermaid than when you did when watching it as a child? It is the same movie, but you enjoy watching it multiple times because every time you watch it you find something new.

Repetition and child development: The benefits of repetition

In general, the benefits of repetition for developing little ones are split into two areas:

  1. They are actually learning more each time. This is good for development and comprehension.
  2. The feeling of mastery brings them comfort and improves their self-confidence.

Repetition and child development

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point, he talks about the children’s show Blue’s Clues and how it exemplifies the benefits of repetition in early childhood. The team behind the TV program found that children’s comprehension increased when they played the same show five days in a row. Also, there was no drop in engagement.

Why? Well, at a very simple level, repetition helps anyone learn something new. When we learn something new, we create a new neural pathway in our brain, and this needs to be strengthened by going over that same piece of knowledge again and again.

Further, we learn new skills and different levels of understanding each time. When a child is first exposed to something new they are often just taking in the experience. It’s very difficult to really learn from it.

As childrenrepeat a process again and again, they go from experiencing to anticipating, from understanding basic concepts to exploring the activity to its fullest extent.

So that explains the first benefit of repetition. But what about the second?

Repetition, mastery & self-confidence

With most experiences being new, a child’s world is a daunting one. Consider language. Just one of the many tasks they have to do is find a word for every single thing that they experience in the world. Pretty exhausting!

Doing something familiar and comfortable not only provides them with a calm environment in which they can learn, but also bolsters their self-esteem. That feeling of affirmation that “I can do this, I know what I’m doing” is invaluable for every little learner. The repetition is comforting.

Repetition is also one of the only ways we can learn certain key skills. Things like:

The wonder of repetition: Not too hard, but just hard enough

One quick note before we get started with some ideas on how to provide a more repetition-friendly environment. For repetition to be valuable, the activity, interest, item or object that the children want to repeatedly engage with has to have the right level of complexity.

It must be complex enough to allow for progression into deeper and deeper levels of comprehension, but not too complex that it is confusing and overwhelming.

That’s why things like books and nursery rhymes are perfect. They are something children can go from experiencing to understanding to asking questions and starting to predict future events. There is a world of learning in one simple thing!

At the same time, it can’t be so complex that it baffles them and turns them off. This happy middle ground is called the Zone of Proximal Development. Here’s Ailsa Monk, one of the experts from our guide to being an outstanding childcare provider, on that very thing:

“If they’re happy and concentrated, children will be in what we call the zone of proximal development. It means that they are engaged in activities that are neither too easy nor too difficult.
In this zone you will see children who are calm, peaceful and engaged in their activities. If it’s too easy they will get bored and start misbehaving and if it is too difficult they will lose interest and their self-esteem.
It’s a broad band between too easy and too difficult but if you can keep the children in this band then you will have a settled, calm, environment where the children are engaged, happy, interested, and concentrated.”

- Ailsa Monk, Principal,Cotswold Montessori School

The big ideas

Simple ways to teach patterns to preschoolers

Now that we’ve hopefully convinced you about the importance of repetition and patterns in early education, let’s take a look at some ideas to create an environment that encourages repetition, and what you can do to ensure that the children are getting the most out of these repetitive activities.

1. Repeat activities

OK, so this one’s pretty simple. But it’s so easy to constantly be updating and changing activities, especially when you’re doing cohort analysis and trying to strengthen certain areas.

But if children are really engaged in something, don’t make it a one-off. Find a way to build it into your schedule for a longer time so that the children can remain engaged and take new learning experiences from it each time.

2. Don’t change the environment too often.

Changing up your environment to address certain areas and improve areas that are being left unused is crucial to a successful continuous provision. Remember that change for change’s sake doesn’t benefit anyone. And also remember, that even if you - the adult - is bored and ready for change, that doesn’t mean the child is.

As we’ve already explained, comfort is a crucial part of what makes repetition so important to children, and a constantly changing environment can make this comfort very difficult to find, especially for children who attend less regularly.

3. Level up your reading skills

That’s right, we do mean your reading skills.

One thing you can do to improve the learning experience when you’re reading a book for the millionth time is to try out different voices. It can really help children to interact and imitate the same ideas, and they are able to empathize more with the people in the story, understanding themselves more in the process. Great for their emotional development.

Another great idea is to talk to children about what’s going on, asking if the stories relate to anything in their real life and generally engaging them with the context of the story as much as possible.

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4. Nursery rhymes. Nursery rhymes. Nursery rhymes.

See what we did there? There’s a reason why nursery rhymes have been a mainstay in early years education for so many years. They provide great extended learning opportunities, as children go through the stages.

To start with, they’re enjoyable. Then, a child can get comfortable engaging in an activity and singing along with a group. The mastery that comes with going from listening along to joining in and then even predicting a change? Well, that is a true wow moment for a child at any stage of development. Check out a few of our favorite nursery rhymes over here.

5. Let children follow their interests

Forced repetition is never going to be the way forward. That’s why allowing children to follow their interests is crucial in getting this to work.

This could be helped by a less strict schedule, where children aren’t made to pack away or stop what they’re doing when they’re at the height of their engagement. You shouldn’t be prioritizing pre-planned activities over situations where children are happily and carefully following an interest.

6. Extending the interest

Once you have children who are following their interests repeatedly, the next step is to extend that interest. Find ways to use children’s interests in areas where they might not be so secure to gently ease them into the discomfort and unpredictability. One great way of doing this is to…

7. Understand scaffolding

Scaffolding is all about offering the right help, at the right time, in the right way. This is particularly important with repetition in the early years, as children sometimes need to be left alone to explore, while sometimes intervention is needed to push them in certain directions.

Another way to extend the interest is to…

8. Use open-ended questions

Once children are comfortable with something, open-ended questions are great for helping them to explore the activity further, establishing stronger pathways and extending their learning. Try things like:

  • What do you think will happen if…?
  • What’s going on in the story here?
  • What’s going to happen next if we…?
  • Why do you think they’re doing that?

Children will be able to answer different questions at different levels of development. Factual questions that start with what and who tend to be a little easier, while how and why questions might be for a little later in their developmental journey.

Also consider sensory questions to make sure children are exploring the whole multi-sensory experience, asking them what it smells like, what it feels like, what it sounds like and so on, to ensure they get the full experience.

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Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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