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The wonder of repetition in childhood development

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Just about every parent knows this. Toddlers and little kids love to repeat things over and over again. It can sometimes leave parents bored or exhausted when their child asks to read a favorite book for the hundredth time. But in this week's installment of our Weekly Dose of Wonder, NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee explains repetition is essential to a child's development.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: My son was about 4 months old when I first noticed how he could spend a long time doing the same thing over and over again. He wasn't doing a whole lot back then besides eating, pooping and sleeping. But the rest of his waking hours he spent focused on trying to touch the toys in the mobile over his crib.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOBILE CHIMING)

CHATTERJEE: And he kept at it for weeks, even after he'd mastered the work of touching and tugging at the toy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOBILE CHIMING)

CHATTERJEE: Now my son is 3 years old and still busy doing things on repeat - everything from foods he loves to eat, toys he loves to play with and YouTube videos he loves to watch.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: These machines also work at night because in the night, the crops are long, so they cut it in the night.

CHATTERJEE: He's watched this video countless times over the past couple of months, so much that I have become allergic to the soundtrack. But the little guy's enthusiasm persists.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: See? That is the way to - look. See? It's pouring in.

CHATTERJEE: Oh, it's going to pour what it harvested into the dump truck over there.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Yeah.

CHATTERJEE: So why do kids love to repeat things?

REBECCA PARLAKIAN: Repetition is a really critical component to early learning.

CHATTERJEE: Rebecca Parlakian is an expert on early childhood development at the nonprofit ZERO TO THREE. She says kids are born with a drive to figure out the world around them.

PARLAKIAN: So often I hear adults saying, well, how do we motivate children to learn? Oh, you do not have to motivate children to learn. They are driven to master the world around them, and, you know, they do that through repetition.

CHATTERJEE: Learning requires creating new neural circuits in the brain. And she says neural connections in those circuits are reinforced through repeated experiences.

PARLAKIAN: So through practice, they're strengthening these connections, and they're, you know, building that infrastructure in the brain.

CHATTERJEE: Also, she says babies and children are like little scientists. They're testing the rules of the world when they do things on repeat.

PARLAKIAN: Think about a really common scenario, like a child, you know, a baby, even, throwing food off the highchair, and the dog, you know, leaps on it and eats it up. And it's this wonderful, satisfying game.

CHATTERJEE: And they keep repeating the game until the baby runs out of the cheese and throws a spoon down instead.

PARLAKIAN: The spoon scares the dog, and all of a sudden, you know, the dog kind of runs into the other room, and the game is over.

CHATTERJEE: But the baby learned something new - that the spoon hitting the floor frightens the dog away. Parlakian says as children learn things by doing things over and over, they also start to take some comfort from being able to predict how something will unfold.

PARLAKIAN: There's something so nurturing when you can anticipate exactly what will happen in a routine or in a story.

CHATTERJEE: That's especially obvious during our son's nighttime routine, which involves my husband or I reading his favorite books.

What are you reading?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: The book.

CHATTERJEE: Dump truck books.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Oh.

CHATTERJEE: Now I know that this nightly ritual, repeated over and over again, has already taught him so many things about the world around him.

Dump trucks, diggers, loaders and bulldozers are all types of...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Worker machines.

CHATTERJEE: And it also gives him the comfort and safety of knowing that once we're done reading, he will fall asleep with his head resting on my shoulder. Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rhitu Chatterjee is a health correspondent with NPR, with a focus on mental health. In addition to writing about the latest developments in psychology and psychiatry, she reports on the prevalence of different mental illnesses and new developments in treatments.