A few weeks ago, I visited the wonderful preschool program where my five-year-old niece, Lauren, is enrolled. The teacher commented that Lauren loves to color. She explained that Lauren will color in the morning, color after a nap and color again tomorrow! Young children thrive on such repetition. Put yourself in their shoes for a minute. To begin with, children are just starting to sort out which aspects of the world are predictable: What can be counted on to remain the same? What will change? “Is the school’s copy of A Very Hungry Caterpillar exactly like the one I have at home? I’d better look at it over and over to be sure.” Repeating an experience gives children a chance to confirm that what they learned earlier still holds true–and to build on their understanding.
For years teachers and parents have been told to expose their children to as many different experiences as possible in order to broaden their knowledge and stimulate their ability to think. What is sometimes sacrificed in following this advice, however, is the opportunity for children to repeat valuable activities. Children who are allowed to repeat experiences gain confidence and a strong foundation upon which future learning can be built. When a situation is familiar, a child is free to apply new knowledge and new skills to experiment and understand, to clear up misconceptions, and to recreate what was previously satisfying.
For this reason, early childhood classrooms stock certain predictable, traditional materials such as playdough, blocks, sand and balls. Simple materials, but ones that can be used in many ways. From an adult’s viewpoint, it may seem needlessly repetitious to offer these toys throughout an entire year and into the next. Children don’t necessarily see it that way. The next time you look at changing the materials in your classroom, keep the children’s interest in mind.
You’ll see that by repeating experiences with familiar toys, their play has grown. It’s become more elaborate. The same predictable materials are slowly being used in more challenging ways. By the end of this school year, Lauren is not just trying to color in the lines or scribble, she is drawing meaningful pictures, making books and writing words with her markers. The same child, the same markers, but an entirely different learning experience.
Early childhood programs do, of course, encourage children to broaden their horizons, and try new things, but they also respect their need for repeating (and repeating) the familiar. Why? Because they know that all areas of development and learning are shaped by a child’s experiences—and that includes familiar, predictable experiences as well as new ones. I loved the way my dress looked in Lauren’s picture. It had bright colors, buttons and a zipper. Maybe next year she will add designer shoes!