Why your kid wants to do the same activity over and over again

Read the same book five times in one sitting? It can actually be helping your kid. Here's how to approach repetition without losing your sanity.
Photo: iStockphoto

Photo: iStockphoto

Cheri Bojcic’s four-year-old, Elana, has a favourite book: Fidgety Fish. She loves the quirky sea creatures, the colourful pictures, the engaging story. She’s memorized most of the words. When Fidgety swishes through the water, mom and daughter wiggle too. Luckily, Fidgety Fish is such a likeable book. Bojcic, of Chilliwack, BC, has had to read it to Elana a few times. Make that a few hundred times.

Mostly, we’re thrilled if a child wants an encore of a book or a fingerplay — or when she asks to see a carefully chosen DVD again. It means we’re doing something right, introducing her to the world of stories, words, rhythms. Still, after the 83rd time through, we may not feel quite so enthusiastic.

What’s the appeal of wanting to experience something again and again? It’s human nature to repeat things we enjoy. And it contributes to a child’s sense of security, says Catherine Lee, a University of Ottawa psychology professor and president-elect of the Canadian Psychological Association. “We are comforted by being able to predict the world.” (It works in similar ways for older kids too. You may have seen your preteen stomp to her room after a hard day at school so she can listen to a favourite piece of music over and over or watch High School Musical, again.)

Karin Borland, administrative coordinator of youth services at the Winnipeg Public Library, adds, “Children delight in repetition because whatever the activity is, it becomes a part of their memory and they learn to anticipate the details of the story, film or fingerplay — that’s fun. When they know what’s coming, they’re the master of that activity.”

Your toddler or preschooler loves the exciting ending of a nursery rhyme or the drop through your legs at the end of a knee bounce. But the shriek of delight isn’t because she’s surprised; it’s because she knows what’s coming, explains Borland. “What’s peekaboo if you only say it once? It’s nothing. The excitement builds because the child is thinking about what comes next.”

Repetition is the foundation of many aspects of learning, says Judith Wright, a literacy specialist with the Ontario Early Years Centres in London, Ont., and co-director of the London Suzuki Music Centre. “A baby needs 1,000 repetitions to learn a word; by the time he’s a toddler, he might need 50 repetitions; and when he’s in kindergarten, he may need only a few repetitions to master it because the brain connections have been laid out.” Parents help this process by singing the same song, reading the same story, reciting the same nursery rhyme — and repeating what the baby says back. “We do this intuitively,” says Wright. “A mother will say Mama and the baby will hear it 1,000 times before he says it — we don’t get tired of saying that!”

Wright sees the role repetition plays in development in her baby music classes. “When they master a song or rhythm — when they know it, can predict it, can do it all by themselves — they develop this powerful sense of their own competency, a confidence that they’re smart.”

There are important pre-reading skills in the pages of a favourite book, says Borland. “Each repetition gives kids another opportunity for learning the meaning and nuances of language. To learn to read easily, they have to know the meaning of what they’re reading — they can’t just do it as a mechanical drill.” Kids who’ve experienced repeated readings start school with an advantage, she adds.

They will go in recognizing words and letters from their memory. When the teacher says the word, it will click: ‘I know that word.’”

Over the years, repetition gives a kid confidence to take on tough tasks. Wright feels strongly that the skills her students learn through repetition take them far. “They learn that’s how you acquire a skill. They’re set up to know that if they don’t understand something, they can work at it and, with repetition, they really come through. That satisfaction sets them up with confidence for later learning — in school and beyond.”

The benefits of repetition are clear. What’s not so clear is how to get through the next dozen readings of a Dr. Seuss book you aren’t sure you loved the first time through. Our experts offer their suggestions.

• Resist the temptation to avoid reading a fave book that has begun to fray your nerves. Instead, mix it up. Pretend to read the book backward, starting at the back and working forward. See what your child thinks — is it funny? Is he proud to point out your mistake? If the text rhymes, make a game of leaving out words and encourage your child to fill them in. Or don’t read the ending — ask your child to make one up.

• At the library or bookstore, compromise — let your child pick some books and you pick some. And if your child wants to take home a favourite Christmas book in the spring — throw it on the pile.

• Choose quality books and music. If there’s a story you really can’t stand, try not to buy it. Parents ultimately have control over the initial exposure to annoying things, especially with very young children.

• If you feel that your child is using storytime to prolong bedtime, limit repeat readings: “That’s enough. We’ll read it again tomorrow.”

• Focus on the benefits to your child; that will help to pull you through. As you’re reading that bedtime story for the 100th time, focus on your child’s physical and emotional response. See how much he’s enjoying it, how he’s relaxing.

Most repetition shouldn’t worry you. Catherine Lee, president-elect of the Canadian Psychological Association, explains that the repetitive behaviours of the autism spectrum are unusual. “They strike us as odd and are behaviours that most children don’t do.”

If you think the repetition might be going overboard and becoming a compulsion although obsessive-compulsive disorder is more rare in children than in adults), ask yourself if it’s interfering with your child’s life. Question your friends to get a sense of what their children are doing. Preschoolers especially love the reassurance of familiar stories because they’re learning so many new skills. Lee says, “Repeated requests for Goodnight Moon are quite normal. On the other hand, a teen who compulsively reads the same book over and over — not just two or three times — might be a concern.”

This article was originally published in January 2008.

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