The Power of Imitation — Games and Activities for You and Your Child
It was a chilly November weeknight. I was boiling pasta and grating cheese for our family dinner while my newly turned three year old daughter perched on a barstool at the counter and watched me. Her big eyes followed the motions of my hands and the shrinking wedge of cheese each time it passed over the grater. I knew the question was coming. She wants to do everything I’m doing, especially if it involves a tool she’s never used before. “Mommy, can I try?” she asked, reaching her hands towards me.
I wanted to say no. I didn’t like the thought of her tiny fingers so close to the sharp holes of the grater. I wasn’t thrilled about derailing all my dinnertime tasks to turn the moment into a learning opportunity. But my daughter looked so eager, and I know that children learn by doing and through imitation. So I did my best to banish my fears and my irritation, gave her a safety demonstration, and under close supervision, my capable toddler grated a tiny, fluffy pile of Romano for the top of our evening’s ragout.
If you’re familiar with Montessori philosophy, then you know the concept of the Absorbent Mind—the idea that, during the first six years of life, children have sponge-like brains that absorb information from their environments. They do this without ceasing, and it is how they learn. Imitation is a crucial aspect of this process.
Before the age of three, the learning happens unconsciously. But from three to six, the learning becomes conscious. Their minds are still spongy and absorbent, but older toddlers and children seek out experiences as they develop their skills. They also begin wanting to make choices and flex their independence.
So how can you tap into the power of imitation with your own kiddos? Play! The following is a list of simple games and activities that encourage your child to lean into their natural inclination to connect with you, do what you’re doing, and learn by doing. Each activity has a suggested age range.
Imitation Games for Babies and Toddlers
All of these suggestions have been play tested with my own toddler and may or may not be suitable in cases of neurodivergence.
I’m Big Too (toddlers)
Have you ever noticed that little ones are obsessed with becoming “big.” They are very invested in their own big-kid-ness and want to do everything themselves (unless they’re tired or you’re trying to get them to brush their teeth, of course). Kids need to feel agency, and when they do all the things that you do, it gives them a sense of power and control in their own lives.
When a baby hits that 16 month mark you might notice him performing more and more gestures that look like things you do around the house. Toddlers learn by watching and then by doing. It’s one of the primary ways that they pick up new skills. But it is also a key way of bonding with the adults in their lives. Remember, a little human has to learn how to do exactly everything from scratch, from basic life skills to existing in a society. When my daughter was around 20 months old, she would watch her dad do push ups and me do yoga and then she would, to the best of her ability, go through the motions with us. It was her way of connecting.
Give your child the opportunity to copy your actions during various activities and routines around the home. Lift her up to the light switch and show her how to turn it on and off and see if she want to give it a go. Use a damp washcloth to wash your own face, and invite your child to do the same. Pass out the plates at dinner time, and then see if your child wants to handle the napkins. My daughter goes into paroxysms of joy whenever she is allowed to use a spray bottle, so I keep one filled with water so she can “clean” the countertops.
Monkey See (infant)
For younger babies, use care tasks like diaper changes and baths to model facial expressions. Over exaggerate your smile or frown. Make a kissing face or a fish face. Dance and clap. Your baby may imitate you, or they may just laugh. But they’ll start to make the association between facial expression and emotion.
Sponge Fun (infants and toddlers)
Sensory activities are wonderful tools for play and imitation. For small children, activities need to be simple and safe. Cut kitchen sponges into strips about one inch wide—thin enough that your child can grip the strips easily, but large enough that they can’t be swallowed. Fill a child-safe bowl with cool water, and then demonstrate ways that your child might use the sponge for play. Dip the sponge in the water and then squeeze the water out. Stroke a wet sponge over hands, arms, or cheeks. Drop a wet sponge and hear it splat. Then get out of the way and let your little one explore.
Little Chef (toddlers and older children)
Let your little one handle food items just like you do. For babies, this might mean providing a large bowl filled with cereal that they can stir, scoop, and taste. Toddlers can actually help you prepare their meals. Let them practice pouring milk from a small cup into their cereal or stir cinnamon into their own oatmeal. You might even find that helping you prepare a meal makes your child more likely to eat it!
Arts and Crafts (toddlers and older children)
Too often we set our children down with a blank piece of paper and a pile crayons and expect them to occupy themselves with art. But I’ve found my child stays engaged with an activity longer if I model how to use an art supply or demonstrate the steps to completing an art project. She loves gluing or taping construction paper shapes to paper, filling in an outlined shape with dot markers, and making shapes out of play dough. If I spend just a few minutes modeling the activity, often she’ll take it and run with it.
Library Play (toddlers and children)
From a very early age, I’ve taken my daughter to the library. We’ve spent many hours throughout her life selecting just the right books from the stacks, taking them to the counter for check out, and placing them in the book return on later visits. She knows all the steps now and looks forward to the routine of it. If you’re going to the library or doing any activity for the first time, talk about the steps in detail or even act them out so your child knows what to expect. Later on, you can engage in pretend play and “check out” books for each other.
Animal Walks (toddlers)
Get a little silly with your child by taking an animal walk. He’ll practice their imitation skills while also working on his balance and flexibility. When your child loses interest in one animal, move onto another.
Start out by stomping like an elephant. Get into a wide stance and move across the room with heavy footfalls. You can even use an arm to mimic a swinging trunk. Expect a lot of giggles.
Some other ideas: jump like a kangaroo, crawl on all fours like a cat or dog, flap your arms and fly like a bird, hop like a bunny, leap like a frog, and slither like a snake. Ask your little one for his own suggestions.
Mailbox (toddlers and children)
Mail a letter with your child! Choose a lucky recipient (preferably someone who will report back to you that they received the letter!) and write them a letter. Have your child write her own note along side you—drawings and scribbles are perfectly acceptable. Show your child how to place the letter in an envelope, then address, stamp, and mail the letter.
If your child is interested in this activity, follow up by giving her the supplies to play mail box. Make pencils, paper, envelopes, and stickers (to act as stamps) available to her. Use a shoebox or other receptacle as a mailbox. She can practice creating mail and pretend to be a mail carrier. You can also leave mail for her in her “mailbox.”
Have fun practicing object permanence with your child by playing a good, old fashioned game of peek-a-boo. You can hide behind your hands or use a blanket or a scarf. Pop out and say, “peek-a-boo!” Invite your little one to hide as well. You can also use a blanket to cover small items and then lift the blanket and see that they’re still there.
Language Play (Infants)
Anyone who has ever watched a child grow has marveled at language development.
One moment you’re begging your child to say “mama” or “dada.” A few months later you’d give anything for a moment of peace! Imitation is so important for language development, so it’s a fantastic practice to talk around your child, to read to your child and to narrate your life as you live it. Your little one is absorbing every word you say, taking in new information, and integrating it into her burgeoning internal encyclopedia.
From a very young age, children are learning the rules surrounding conversations. Whenever you hear your young child babbling, repeat those sounds back at them. Children can grasp the idea of back-and-forth conversational flow before they begin speaking with words. Have a conversation with your little one, even if you aren’t sure what you’re saying!
Have a Ball! (Infants and toddlers)
Sit on the floor with your child and enjoy some free play with a ball. Roll the ball back and forth. Use a pillow as an incline and let the ball roll down. Use your feet, knee, or elbow to push the ball instead of your hands. Grab a laundry basket and toss the ball inside. Take your time with each motion. Repetition will help you child learn and develop confidence.
Rhythm and Rhyme (all ages)
Songs and rhymes involving gestures and actions can give you child great practice at imitation. Motions and rhythms help the words stick in little minds and dancing or moving together is a wonderful way to promote connection and shared experience. There are dozens of possibilities, but here are a few to get you started:
- Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes
- The Wheels on the Bus
- I’m a Little Teapot
- The Itsy-Bitsy Spider
- Old Mac Donald Had a Farm
Daily Life (all ages)
It’s wonderful to engage in intentional play with your child. But remember the power of imitation is at work all the time
Whether you realize it or not, you are modeling how to be a person to your children, so be the person you want them to be. Be kind. Lend a hand. They are watching. But the most important person you can treat respectfully is your child. He will reflect back everything you put into him. So if you are kind and respectful, he will be too. If you are harsh and violent, even if it’s in the service of keeping him respectful and safe, that’s how he will also interact with the world.
And to that end, don’t be afraid to try new things. Show your child that learning can be a life-long joy. The best way to instill a sense of wonder and adventure in your child is to flex those muscles yourself. If you have a partner, switch up your ingrained activities sometime. Let your child see how endless the opportunities are for doing and caring.
And believe me, I know—sometimes you just want to make dinner or grocery shop in peace. And if you are at the end of your rope, by all means, find a way to get that peace and quiet. But whenever you have the energy to let your little one “help” with chores, tasks, errands, or projects. Get her involved, even if you have to make up a task for her to do. It’ll make her feel important, special, and close to you.
Finally, apologize when the situation calls for it. You know you aren’t perfect, but your little one doesn’t. And believe it or not, the sooner he understands that you aren’t perfect, the better. It relieves the pressure he’ll feel to do everything perfectly himself. It relieves you of the pressure to always appear perfect. And it teaches your little one how to repair relationships when they inevitably go through a few scrapes. Imitation will help your child learn new skills, connect with others, and become a person he’ll be proud to be.
What are some ways you can use the power of imitation in your life? Leave us a comment below!