Before my daughter learned to speak she learned to sign, and the first sign she mastered was “more”. More meant more — as in, “Give me more milk before I scream-cry in 5-4-3-2-1...” — but for her, it also meant “again”. Sing that song again. Push the toy cash register button again. Make that funny sound with your armpit again, again, again.
Kids like repetition. Most parents get that, but when you’ve been reading the same story for the past hundred days and that damn caterpillar is still hungry, you can’t help but think, “Come on, let’s diversify here.” You might even start to wonder if your kid is getting a little stuck.
This was a concern I had when I chose my daughter’s play-based, child-led preschool. On one hand, I loved how the children had the freedom to explore without a constricting routine. On the other hand, sure, while she could build things with Magna-Tiles or dig in the sand or observe the Komodo dragon, without any direction, wouldn’t she just do the same thing she does at home, all day, every day? (At that time, she was obsessed with putting nappies on baby dolls.)
My friend Karen says her son Christopher's devotion to garbage trucks began when he was around 18 months old. He would go nuts whenever he saw one. Karen tried to turn his attention to toy trains since that's what they had in the house, but he wouldn't have it. Garbage trucks. That was it.
“She might,” the school’s director Sylvia told me. “But what’s wrong with that?”
When I recently asked her about this again, she elaborated. “What adults don’t see is that each time a child does something, they see something differently. Why is it that when people travel, they go to the same place again and again? You see something new every time. That’s how you get a true understanding of something.”
There’s scientific evidence to back this up. When children do the same thing over and over — reread the same books, dump and refill the same bucket, ask the same question — connections are being made in their brains that are critical for learning and development.
A study on language acquisition found that kids who were read the same book multiple times picked up new words faster and retained the meaning of those new words better than kids who were read different texts. Another study discovered that when kids reread stories, their conversations about those stories deepened upon subsequent readings — their responses to questions became more varied and complex.
And repeating things is simply comforting for kids — and for adults, too. Familiarity makes us feel safe and secure and less alone. Knowing what comes next is empowering. In this world of uncertainty and chaos, how nice is it to be able to say goodnight to the Moon, stars, air and noises everywhere before drifting off to sleep?
A piece from The Daily Beast titled “We’ve Been Saying Goodnight to That Moon for 70 Years” quotes Lucy Mitchell’s 1921 Here and Now Story Book:
It is only the blind eye of the adult that finds the familiar uninteresting. The attempt to amuse children by presenting them with the strange, the bizarre, the unreal, is the unhappy result of this adult blindness. Children do not find the unusual piquant until they are firmly acquainted with the usual.
What should you do about your kids’ repetitive behaviours? As tedious as they might be, go with them. But not in a way that’ll make you crazy. Here are some tips:
- Even as you cycle through books, keep some familiar favourites around on the shelves.
- Look for sequels and books by the same author — kids build stronger connections when they have something familiar to grasp onto, such as a character or style of writing.
- Offer open-ended materials that support “schemas”, repeated patterns of behaviour. Here’s an excellent list from early childhood educator Michelle Thornhill.
- Change up the familiar little by little. For instance, after you’ve read a book for the umpteenth time, cover up some words and let your kid fill in the blanks. Or change up the ending. In time, the kid will feel confident enough to ask, “OK, what’s next?”