Skip to main content

Studies Shed Light on Toddler Development

Squealing with delight, the two toddlers stood transfixed in front of a mirror, each taking turns licking at their smiling reflections. In a moment of inspiration, one boy picks up a pot and starts to bang on it with a wooden spoon. Not to be outdone, the other boy quickly follows suit and soon the room is filled with loud banging and laughter.

Upon closer study, Duke developmental psychologist Carol Eckerman has found that these toddlers are doing a lot more than making noise. By simply imitating each other, they are finding ways to coordinate their behavior across sustained periods of time. They are even engaging in behaviors that set the stage for more sophisticated verbal interaction.

"I saw that toward the end of the second year of life, children started doing a lot of similar things together, and it was enjoyable to them and seemed to enable them to coordinate what they were doing across time," says Eckerman, who has studied toddler peer interaction for several years.

More importantly, her studies indicate that toddlers use imitation of play actions in similar ways across diverse settings within a culture - for example, in familiar daycare groups as well as first meetings between two toddlers - as well as across quite diverse cultures.

While earlier research on infant and toddler social development focused on the mother-infant interactions, Eckerman noted the degree to which the infants themselves were skillful communicators with one another. She studied toddlers•interactions with peers of the same age and skill level to see what insights emerged about the development of communication skills.

"I thought that if I looked at two kids at the same skill level, then this might open my eyes to the level of communicative skills children themselves have at an early age. And of course if nothing much happened between the two children, I wouldn't have gone on to study them much longer. But, a lot happened."

Studies such as Eckerman's have shown that children become aware of one another and will readily look and smile at another child from very early in infancy. By the end of their first year, they follow each other about, spending a good deal of time close together playing with the same objects. Although they are capable at one year of engaging in highly familiar games like pat-a-cake or peek-a-boo with adults, they show little evidence of this kind of coordination in their interactions with peers. They begin to generate many game-like interactions with peers only toward the end of their second year of life, when they begin to readily imitate each other's playful actions.

During Eckerman's study, pairs of unfamiliar toddlers were placed in a room full of toys while their mothers sat nearby and chatted with one another. Eckerman found that toward the end of the second year of life, children were almost guaranteed to interact with each other in what she calls imitative patterns. Imitative patterns, or games, tend to come in three main varieties: reciprocal imitation, follow-the-leader and lead-follow.

Reciprocal imitation patterns, the most frequently observed games, involve the two children repeatedly taking turns in doing similar play actions - for example, throwing a ball in the air or jumping off a box. These games are typically variations on the theme of a specific playful action. Across turns, the children can delete old elements or add new ones, as when a child playfully falls to the floor after jumping off the box. The basic theme such as jumping, however, is readily recognizable throughout the game and the game can extend over minutes.

Follow-the-leader games, as the name suggests, are characterized by a series of different actions being imitated across turns.

Lead-follow, similar to follow-the-leader, involves one child imitating the different actions of another, but now the imitated actions are playful movements through space - such as hopping from one spot to another, racing across a room, rolling across the floor or switching from adept walking to playful crawling.

In a study among the Seltaman people of Papua, New Guinea, Eckerman and fellow anthropologist Harriet Whitehead also found these imitative patterns among toddlers developing in a quite different, non-Western culture. They discovered that toddler imitation emerged at about the same time in development as for the U.S. toddlers. Furthermore, they found, the Seltaman toddlers generated reciprocal imitation games with the same diversity of themes and visual attention to one another and laughter as seen in the United States.

Although the developmental picture was more similar than different between the cultures, Eckerman and Whitehead did find some slight differences. The Seltaman toddlers' games were overwhelmingly reciprocal imitation, and most often mimicked adult actions. These actions included drumming rhythmically on cans, rearranging firewood and cans within their home firepit or mimicking a slingshot with a rubber band. The themes of their early games were those that might be expected for children developing within a culture that exposes them regularly to most of the adult world and expects children to fit into this adult world, Eckerman says.

Overall, Eckerman concludes that children's imitation of each other's playful actions provides a new, powerful form of communication between toddlers - a form they find very useful before they have sufficient verbal skills to negotiate what they want to do together.

"I expect that the children are using imitation of nonverbal actions as a way of reaching agreement on a topic for their interaction. So, when one child imitates another it may say something like 'let's do this together' and when the first child imitates back it's kind of like a confirmation: 'yes, I like this too.'"

Furthermore, Eckerman says this nonverbal communication seems to aid toddlers' use of words with one another. Within four months after toddlers begin to generate these imitation games, they start talking much more with one another. Also, they talk much more when they are engaged in an imitation game then when they are close together playing with the same objects but in a less coordinated way.

Eckerman suggests that as the toddlers generate their nonverbal imitation game, they arrive at a joint understanding of what they are doing together. This joint understanding then aids their verbal communication with one another. They begin to use words to direct each other in the nonverbal game - for example, "Go," "Wait," or "Jump," or "Watch me", Eckerman says. And, they answer each other's verbalizations in a topically-well-connected way - for example, "You jump" in response to "My turn". Finally, they verbally describe their play actions as they do them -- for example declaring "I jump" or "Big jump!" while jumping off the box.

Eckerman's new studies include observing Brazilian toddlers in daycare to understand more about how the toddlers use imitation in communication. Also, she and her colleagues are examining the skills that appear just prior to imitation to understand how and why this imitation emerges relatively suddenly around two years of age.

Eckerman says she hopes that her research will shed light on the timing of the specific communication skills that infants and toddlers acquire and the usefulness of the virtually inexhaustible array of different games in which they engage.

Besides the similarity across cultures in the role of imitation in toddler interactions, also universal is the enjoyment they seem to get from playing with one another.

"You can infer from the laughing and smiling going on that they really enjoy interacting with each other," Eckerman says. "Perhaps in these imitative interactions they are experiencing both their similarity to others and their separateness . Perhaps they are learning that we each are intentional agents of action and that playing together is a very pleasant thing."

Written by Kelly Malcom.