Why toddlers love repetition in play

By Kristi York on September 29, 2014

“Space Jam, please!” my three-year old son, Jake, says cheerily. I pull out the DVD, which I’m amazed hasn’t cracked from overuse. Forgive the kid-like exaggeration, but it feels like we’ve watched the 1996 classic (where Michael Jordan plays basketball with the Looney Tunes) umpteen million times. It’s actually a pretty entertaining movie – especially the part where Air Jordan, clearly at the peak of his physical fitness, lounges shirtless in a hotel room. On behalf of moms everywhere, I’d like to thank the director, Joe Pytka, for his cinematic choices in that scene.

Despite all the options available, Jake’s requests are always the same. He wants us to read him the same book at bedtime every night. We listen to the same CD in the car, day after day. If one of us says something funny, the joke gets told over and over. The rest of us are eager to see the newest content or the latest episode, so why does he want the same old thing? 

Dr. Wendy Hoglund, a psychology professor at the University of Alberta, says it’s a typical toddler instinct. “Young children naturally prefer structured and predictable events,” she says. “Repeated exposure to the same story, illustrations, song, movie or game can increase children’s enjoyment because they can anticipate what will happen next.” 

Not surprisingly, repetition also plays an important role in learning. “Children learn more new words during shared reading if they are read the same stories repeatedly than if they are read different stories,” says Dr. Hoglund. “It helps to increase letter and word recognition, build vocabulary and deepen the understanding of the story’s meaning.”

I would have thought Jake would reach a saturation point with Space Jam, but it’s just the opposite. When the movie ends, the first thing he does is grab his little basketball and mimic the plays and gags he has just seen on-screen. According to Dr. Hoglund, this is a positive sign. “When a book or movie experience is accompanied by toys related to it, it can further enhance children’s learning as they re-enact a favourite moment or use it as a springboard to develop their own story.” Between slam dunks, Jake assigns me a role and explains what I need to do or say. Sadly, I am frequently cast in the least desirable roles, such as Michael Jordan’s bumbling assistant, played by Wayne Knight (best known as Seinfeld’s Newman). 

Variety may be on the horizon, though, as Space Jam 2 is rumoured to be in the works. Since Michael Jordan is retired (and likely no longer has his six-pack abs), LeBron James would be a logical candidate to star in the sequel. Hopefully the new director will decide that the shirtless scene is worth repeating.

Worth Repeating

Since your toddler may become hooked on certain books or videos, make sure you select things that you'll be able to tolerate in an endless loop. Here are some recommendations from our household:

Movies

Unlike its spy-themed sequel, Cars has a wonderful wholesomeness to it. The animated vehicles are surprisingly expressive, the dialogue is clever, and the visual detail is breathtaking. Another popular choice with our kids is Madagascar and its cast of sassy zoo animals.

TV Shows

In my mind and heart, Sesame Street will always be number one, with honourable mentions to Dinosaur Train and Curious George. Also, I have yet to meet a toddler who isn’t entranced by the lively animation of Bubble Guppies, starring a cheerful team of fish-tailed kids.

Music

Both my kids adore the Barenaked Ladies’ album Snacktime, which won a Juno Award in 2008 for Best Children’s Album. You’ll all be laughing at the wacky lyrics and singing along to “Eraser” and “Allergies”. 

Books

We are devoted fans of the Elephant and Piggie series by author/illustrator Mo Willems. Gerald the elephant and Piggie the pig engage in hilarious back-and-forth banter and gleefully overreact to everything. There is no narration, just short dialogue snippets that my son eventually memorized, allowing us to recite the stories together.

 

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, October 2014.


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