Isn’t it interesting when you see a young child imitating your movements? Children love to imitate other people’s actions, even if that person is a stranger to them.   I always believed that children would do this to learn different movements and how to use objects. While this is true, imitation is so much more, it is form of communication and is a tool for teaching social skills. According to I-Labs, some elements are present when a child is born, however, as a child grows learning by imitation will change and increase.

“Before babies talk, they imitate facial movements, vocalizations, body movements, and actions on objects.”

When they are infants and toddlers they like to imitate actions that lead to some clear outcome. For example, they might prefer to push a box to turn on a light, compared to pushing a box that does not turn on a light. At this age imitation is another form of communication. It also provides a social-emotional connection between infants and others. When they imitate someone they feel a part of the community. Children have an instinct that when they do the same action as you, you both are alike. Plus, they will learn a lot about the world, themselves, and other people simply by observing what you and others do in their environment.

Between one and one-and-a-half years of age, children will learn 1 to 2 new behaviors a day through copying the actions of other people. As they get older their cognitive thought process is starting to form and they are always observing our behavior. Starting at this point imitation becomes about learning behaviors and social cues. The phrase “lead by example” becomes extremely relevant at this time. It also becomes easier for children to follow a model’s example; for instance, they are likely to quickly discover the correct way to use a phone. These behaviors will continue to grow and improve over time.

This graph shows that as children get older, they can remember a simple one-step action for much longer periods of time. As they get older they are able to watch a demonstration and remember it one to two days later depending on their age.

Imitation will continue to be an important part of children’s learning through the preschool and primary school years. By age three, children learn rules and strategies through imitation. In addition to helping to grow a baby’s cognitive thinking, it will also help them develop a better understanding of other people and their own culture.

The Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS), at University of Washington, is an interdisciplinary research center dedicated to discovering the core principles of human learning. They have a special emphasis on work that will enable all children from birth to age 5 to achieve their full potential.

This blog post is adapted from I-LABS’ fascinating training modules, which are a series of free, online resources for caregivers that summarize the latest science of child development.

Want to know more about this research? Check out I-LABS module, “The Power of Learning Through Imitation.”