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How do infants and toddlers learn? This lesson discusses deferred imitation which psychologist Jean Piaget defined with regard to how children learn.

The lesson also provides examples of the process.

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The Light Switch

Every day eighteen-month-old Georgie was taken to a sitter prior to her parents going to work. She wanted to walk out the door like an adult, she could use her legs, but they were in a hurry. They didn’t have time to hold her hands as she toddled to the car.

Georgie saw that every day, when they left the house, either mom or dad, would push down a little stick on the wall and the house would get dark.The same operation was performed each day of the week (except for certain days when they all stayed home and played) with her parents making the house go dark each time. Georgie stopped watching after a while because she knew what was going to happen. Then one day, after Georgie had turned two, her parents said it was time to go. To their amazement, Georgie toddled over to the wall, climbed up on a bench and turned off the light.

Her act of deferred imitation may have seemed remarkable, but Georgie’s parents shouldn’t have been surprised.

What is Deferred Imitation?

The definition of deferred imitation contains two parts. To defer an action is to set it aside until some future time; to imitate is to see someone perform some act and then try to act in an exact manner. Thus, putting the two together, deferred imitation is watching an individual perform something that you will also perform at some later date. The question then becomes, why defer?In general, the act that is deferred is something that cannot be done at that time.

Infants defer actions because they are not physically or cognitively able to perform that action when it takes place. It is a method of learning that will come to fruition when the infant is physically or mentally capable of the act.Deferred imitation is also a means of teaching someone who is trying to regain certain capabilities. An individual with an acquired brain injury (through an accident, addiction, etc.

) may need to relearn how to perform certain basic actions. Although they may not be able to grasp a fork at first, they learn to eat again using a fork when the brain is able to make the connection again. Thus, it is a deferred imitation.

What Are Some Examples of Deferred Imitation?

Although Jean Piaget, a developmental psychologist, observed that deferred imitation usually started happening between 18 and 24 months, new scientific evidence has determined that infants as young as six months act in this way. One finding in the research is that as an infant or toddler ages the length of time they retain the memory of an action increases. A six-month-old may only remember something for a few days, while a 24-month-old can remember it, and imitate the action, months later.

Examples include:

  • Six months: simple actions such as hand clapping and waving.
  • Eighteen months: more complex actions like holding a cup.
  • Two years and beyond: parents who understand this element of learning can use it to teach their child. A toddler can understand picking up dirty clothes if it is demonstrated or using a utensil properly.

Deferred imitation is one of the primary means of teaching a child and it is effective. From the time a child is a toddler, they can retain information for long periods of time and children tend to imitate adult behavior.

Lesson Summary

Deferred imitation is watching someone perform an act and then performing that action at a later date. Taken from the words defer and imitate, it is a means of learning that Jean Piaget observed in children. Young children, as young as six months, have been observed following this pattern.

First, the child sees its parents do something and the child retains the memory of that action to repeat it later. The length of retention is a function of age. As a child gets older, he or she is able to retain the memory of the action longer.

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