One day you take your toddler with you to the garage to search for a hammer. You find it in a cabinet, head to the living room, and pound in a nail to hang a picture. A week later you're in the garage again and your toddler heads for that same cabinet, attempts to grab the hammer, and indicates that she's interested in hanging another picture.
Can it be that after only one opportunity to see you (or anyone else) use this hammer, she remembered where it was and copied what you did with it, even after a week's delay? How can your child so vividly recollect this activity?
What the Research Shows
You may remember that as far back as your child's 36th week, she was able to mimic your actions even a few days after she'd watched them, a concept researchers call "deferred imitation." But now, in your child's second year, she has acquired even more specific recall abilities.
It was once thought that reproducing novel acts would be cognitively more difficult for young children than imitating familiar ones. The following experiment changed people's minds:
A researcher showed 14-month-olds five different types of toys that required a specific action: object pulling, hinge folding, button pushing, egg rattling, and bear dancing. Then the toddlers watched an especially unusual activity: The researcher leaned forward from the waist and banged a box with his forehead. When he touched the box, it lit up. Pretty exciting!
A week later the children returned to the laboratory. The researcher presented the six toys and activities to each child. The results? Most of the children performed three of the tasks, but the researchers were astonished to find that more of them remembered and copied the new head-bopping move!
Here's what we know: Unusual acts stand out in children's memories. (This fact goes back to the notion of habituation and dishabituation that babies learn in their first year.) For example, the first time your child sees you use a toaster, he will watch you closely and remember how to imitate what you do with it. If on another day you use the toaster again and use your eggbeater for the first time, it's the eggbeater he'll be most interested in. Why? It's new and different. The toaster is old hat; the eggbeater, fascinating.
Children are highly interested in being competent in their environment. The more new activities they remember and imitate, the more competent they become. Give your child safe ways to mimic your grown-up actions, and you'll be amazed at the skills he picks up!