Play. Learn. Repeat.
The Power of Repetition in the Early Years
Plus 8 ideas to try in your setting.

We get it. It can be pretty hard to rouse yourself for the umpteenth time to read exactly the same story. To repeat the same nursery rhyme over and over and over again. To do the same activity you did last week, and the week before, and the week before that.

But there is a reason why children in the early years love repetition so much. It is more than just doing the same thing twice. What seems to you like a dry, repetitive activity is a world of new learning and the comforting embrace of something familiar to a child faced with a world that is anything but.

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

What is repetition to a child?

Whether you’re a practitioner yourself, 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 they are experiencing it in a new way.

Repetition is not just the same thing twice.

Consider it like this:

  • Young children are surrounded by things they don’t understand.
  • That means their daily lives can be a melting pot of confusion and uncertainty.
  • So while older children may search for novelty, it makes sense that children in their early years search for understanding and predictability.
  • Repetition is valuable because each time they experience something the knowledge becomes more secure and their feeling of self-worth increases.

This is why you need to reframe the way you think about repetition. Remember that it is not a repeated experience but something that gives them a new level of understanding each and every time.

Even as adults we have certain things that we enjoy doing or find fascinating. That’s because each time we do it we get a new level of mastery and we revel in the comfort and self-affirmation that comes with ‘getting’ something. Think of it like that film you love because every time you watch it you find something new.

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.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point, he talks about what children’s show Blue’s Clues can teach us about repetition. The team behind the program found that the children’s comprehension increased when they played the same show five days in a row, and without any 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.

What’s more, 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.

But as they repeat the process again and again, they go from experiencing to anticipating, from understanding basic concepts to exploring the activity to its fullest extent.

So that’s number 1 covered. But what about two?

A child’s world is a daunting one. Everything is new, everything revelatory. Consider language. Just one of the many tasks they have to do is finding 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 it 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 too. Things like:

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.

That’s why things like books and nursery rhymes are perfect. They are something children can go from experiencing to understanding, to asking questions on 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

How to provide a repetition-friendly environment

Now that we’ve gone into some of the basics about why repetition is so important to children in the early years, let’s take a look at some ideas to create an environment that encourages this 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. But just remember that change for change’s sake doesn’t benefit anyone.

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 The Gruffalo 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 empathise 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.

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’ll be enjoyable. Then they can get involved within the comfort of a group. Then they can join in when you leave a pause. 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 favourite 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 prioritising 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 interest repeatedly, the next step is to extend that interest. In the moment planning can be a great way of doing this, but in general, it’s just about finding ways to use children’s interests in areas where they might not be so secure. 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 to get on with it, while sometimes intervention is needed to push them in certain directions.

If you want to get clued up on scaffolding, you can check out our handy guide right now.

8. Using 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.

50 Free EYFS Activities

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