Take Two #70: Children on Loop

By Kyra-lin Hom

If you've ever been around children, you've probably noticed that they can watch the same movie or read the same book or play the same game again and again pretty much indefinitely. As of this week, my niece's favorite movie is Dumbo. Her favorite game involves pretending she's the mommy and I'm the baby, tucking me into 'bed' and turning out the lights only to turn them back on for 'morning' moments later. Over and over again. And she's also discovered a love for putting VHS tapes and DVD's into their respective players then taking them out. Ad infinitum.

While this does make for some easy babysitting for me, I'd rather pass a volleyball back and forth or shoot baskets with her mini hoop. Instead I'm tucked under a makeshift blanket, riding the precarious line between pretending to be tired and actually falling asleep. She was very put out the one time I did fake unconsciousness. Her 'wake up' techniques were vigorously effective.

About round 15 of her new 'time for bed' game, I realized, 'Hey, I'm studying psychology. I bet developmental psychology has something to say about this.' Plus I can't be the only one wondering just what is so darned mesmerizing about Dumbo and his adorable floppy ears – or the DVD player for that matter. So as per usual, I did a little digging.

Most people, including most developmental psychologists it turns out, believe that this is simply a result of the way children learn. The current leading theory for children's cognitive development is still based in the groundbreaking work of Jean Piaget from the early to mid-twentieth century. According to Piaget, children go through four stages of cognitive development. From birth to about two years is the sensorimotor stage (learning through touch). From two years to about six or seven is the preoperational stage (intuition over logic, pretend play). From seven to around 11 years old is the concrete operational stage (thinking logically about concrete events). And then from about 12 onwards is the formal operational stage of learning, during which we develop the capacity for abstract thought.

Prior to the concrete operational stage (birth to about seven years), children are extremely intense sponges. They learn best through observation and interaction with their world. Thus, say many professionals, children are going to obsessively do or watch one thing over and over again until they truly 'get it.' Furthermore, there is evidence that this is a good thing. Children – just like grown ups – do learn new information better with repetition. With children however, because they can't synthesize information especially well yet, repeating the exact same material is better for learning than reading/watching/doing similar but different material.

Sounds solid enough. But something else was niggling my brain – something I'd read before but couldn't quite recall. Then I found a video lecture online at UCTV.TV (University of California Television) called “Insights into the Mind of the Child.” Around minute 45, I had my eureka. See, whereas us adults might watch a program or read a book again to recapture the emotional ride it took us on the first time, children literally do not understand that the same outcome is dead set to happen this time.

Because children are programmed to interact with their environment, they are constantly looking for the cause and effect and learning from what they perceive. So yes, my niece does remember that the last time she watched Dumbo, the clumsy baby elephant found his happy ending. Yet this knowledge has no bearing for her on what is going to happen the next time she watches the very same film. She is actively interacting with the story in front of her, engaging and subconsciously studying the ups and downs new every time.

Understanding this now, I feel bad all those times I didn't take her fear of Mufasa (Lion King) seriously. It just slipped my grasp entirely that she really didn't know what was going to happen next since she'd seen the movie about 20 gazillion times. Everyone out there now sharing in my guilt, rest easy. Children learn from us too. Telling them not to be afraid because they already know what happens isn't a bad thing. Just don't expect them to take your words to heart.

What they will take to heart is the story of the hour (week/month/etc.). So while mindless entertainment may be just that for us, it's never that for children. Evidence proves that what we expose our kids too has lasting effects. Something to think about the next time you reach for the remote.

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