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Repeat it until you get it

As grown-ups, we easily tend to get bored when falling into a form of routine. Children, on the contrary, are very much into repetitions. This developmental difference is at the core of the way we process and interpret the world with experience.

This post is also available in Dutch.

Grown-ups can contextualise

Adults are highly trained to estimate the most likely scenario by weighing the pros and cons of the concurrent interpretations of a given situation. This ability depends directly on generalising rules learned from prior experiences to a similar but new experience. By doing so, we are able to process partial sensory information by “filling the gaps”, hereby constructing a more comprehensive and reliable representation of the outside world. This predictive processing constitutes a determining factor in understanding and adapting our behaviors appropriately. As I read a text, I can estimate and predict what follows based on the previous sounds, words, and expressions, hence adopting a more efficient reading. However, one could wonder, how do young children compensate for their lack of experience?

Children learn from repetition 

To optimise the teaching of reading, one strategy is to first present the same story repeatedly. Keeping the context identical over many repetitions helps to consolidate language learning before it is compared and generalised to a new context with unknown elements of information. In Brighton (UK), three-year-old children were exposed to the same words, either in the same or in different books three times every day, over the course of a week. The results were clear: children were much better at memorising the words and expressions after reading the same story than when dealing with different contexts. As they grow older, children develop a more flexible thinking, without necessarily having to go through the same stages of repetition. 

Seven years old: the age of transition

A research group in the state of Indiana (US) found that there were fundamental differences before and after 7 years of age in the way children would learn a general lesson from an illustrated narrative. While kids aged 7 to 8 generalised their experience of a previous story to a novel one with similar features, younger children needed to watch the same story repeatedly before they could reinforce their learning. The more repetitions, the more evidence to understand and make a decision. This experimental approach of learning explains many behaviors observed specifically in the early years of life. 

Flexible, adapting minds

The way they ask for the same things, continuously repeat what they heard, move and throw things on the floor: kids do repeat a lot in general. This can seem frustrating or worrying for a parent. However, this is part of the normal build-up of experience. Already in the womb, the baby exhibits “preferences”, or increased sensitivity to familiar sensations: familiar sounds, flavors, smells, etc. These preferences develop as the baby encounter the outside world, starting with a preference for its mother’s face that will progressively change into a preference for faces in general, with experience. Although naturally, new is scary (this is called neophobia), the more we are exposed to new things early in our life, the more we progressively adapt to it. Therefore, facing diversity as soon as we step into the world is essential to our development.

Picture by Gabriel Sollmann via unsplash

Author: Kim Beneyton

Buddy: Francesca Alba

Editor: Helena Olraun

Translation: Felix Klaassen

Editor translation: Wessel Hieselaar

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