Research: Children

Repetition In Children's Media

The early years, the period up to 8 years of age, is a time of vital growth and development for the whole range of human capacities.
Background to early child development

The early years, the period up to 8 years of age, is a time of vital growth and development for the whole range of human capacities. This period starts when the child is in the womb and a healthy newborn is fundamentally dependent on its mother’s level of nutrition and care during pregnancy. Nutrition in utero has a major effect on adult height (Floud, Wachter and Gregory 1990). Following birth, adequate care of the newborn is also closely linked to the mother’s health and nutritional status.

Up to the age of 8, the young child grows rapidly, particularly his brain. By the age of 8, while the average person has attained approximately 50% of their adult body weight, the brain has attained 90% (Rutter and Rutter 1993). Consequently, this is a time of great importance for cognitive, emotional and psychological development.

Further, there are critical periods when certain kinds of stimulation lead to particular kinds of brain development: emotional control ages 0-2, vision, ages 0-2, social attachment, ages 0-2, vocabulary, ages 0-3, second language, ages 0-10, math/logic ages 1-4, and music, ages 3-10 (Begley 1996). During this key development period, the number of cells in some areas of the brain can almost double within as little as a year. The brains of children aged between two and three are 2.5 times as active as adult brains and remain more active for the first ten years of life (Mustard in Young 2002b).

Figure 1.  Brain Development by Age
Figure 1.  Brain Development by Age

The role of repetition in children’s media

Research that has originated from the work of Jean Piaget including that by Jerome Bruner, Maragret Donaldson and others suggests that children are active in their learning and are not passive receptive receptors.  

What this means for the media we expose our children to is that children need some measure of self-directed control of their environment. We need to understand their phase of development and provide media and experiences that interest and challenge them at an appropriate level.

Robert Fantz developed a test with a “looking chamber” in a cot. This showed that babies have a preference for complex shapes. From six months, this shows babies can distinguish what they are looking at and actively seek visual experience that is varied, and complex, as opposed to simple. This seeking of complex learning environments grows with development and continues to adulthood. We should then make media that includes more complex information than we see the child displaying.

In the development of thinking, memory is very important. Very young babies can remember. They respond to the familiar. By seven to nine months, babies can recognize familiar from unfamiliar. This is the age when stranger anxiety occurs. The unfamiliar person is not recalled, and babies react to this with anxiety. (Hayes 1993). In media making and educational programming, we build on the development of recognition and recall from this age on, where children recognize characters, phrases, contexts, which are repeated either by pure repetition, also repetition in another context and finally formats where we know what to expect and can build on this familiarity better to move into new stories and contexts for the characters to interact and solve problems. Part of this familiarity is repetition.

Media that intends to be educative requires careful sequencing, conceptual layering, repetition, and time to think, imagine and practice ideas. (SABC Education Research, Gultig and Musker  (2001) Education requires careful sequencing, conceptual layering, repetition, and time to think and practice ideas. Television is ephemeral – miss an idea and you have missed it! One cannot page back and have another look. DVDs however can use careful sequencing, where concepts are repeated, learning in one episode can then be referred to in the next, so building knowledge. Where television carries argument, it does so through the sequencing of images, not through verbal argument, and ideally, does this in short sound/picture-bytes. Consequently television is not good at complex messages, at abstract arguments. But for concrete early learning it can convey image and meaning.

Education requires active mental participation. Education is about encouraging thinking, imagining and problem solving. The use of repetition strategies allows opportunities for further engagement and interaction because the content becomes more familiar. When a child hears it and sees it again, they learn. For an adult this may come across as unnecessary and repetitious, because they have already learnt this.

Why repetition?

  • Repetition in programmes is an intentional strategy meant to develop prediction and language skills by Laura Berkowitz M. Ed.  Says: “Learning strategies that can improve a child's ability to process information. Every learner is unique. As your children learn, you’ll probably notice that some things are easy for them, while others seem to require an inordinate amount of repetition & practice.”

  • Young children in and outside of formal schooling and learning situations learn best through repetition (this includes Foundation and Intermediate phases and ages birth to nine). The age range is as follows:

    • Age 0-2 activity based on Sensori-motor stage. Babies learn through their senses and movements. They act on the world and seek the learning of it. Imitation is present – modeling and copying behaviour. This is why we need to show activity. Also play is evident – according to Piaget, play is the practicing of previously learned skills – for the fun of it.

    • Object permanence happens from 4 -5 months, when babies’ note that objects that are not visible to them – still go on to exist. A rattle goes out of reach; the child will seek it even if it is not in sight. They throw down a toy, and mom picks it up, and they throw it down again. And so on.

    • Toddlers of about 18 months begin to use symbols in their thinking and behaviour. The symbols used are mainly words – once language is used, their thinking moves from action based (sensorimotor) to more symbolic, linguistic thinking. By about 2 years children have emerging sentences and a vocabulary of 200 or so words. Remember that children can understand and take in long before they can produce words, so they need to be exposed to language, stories and concepts that they are not yet producing. Even babies that can’t talk, love to be spoken to, sung to and interacted with.

Educational programmes are conceptualised and designed through research and careful educational planning.

Repetition in programmes creates a known context, a familiar format, from which children are able to recognise the characters, the context, and are then able to move their learning to the new specific information in each episode as an opportunity for learning the unfamiliar in the context of the familiar.

Children’s Television Workshop (CTW) did research on Sesame Street. They found some interesting things about repetition: CTW researchers discovered a more complicated relationship between repetition and learning. Learning increased when repetition took place in three distinct ways: when the same segment was viewed repeatedly over a number of episodes, when the content was repeated within one episode but in a different format, and when the same format was used repeatedly to teach different content. Conclusion was that children watched for different things every time they watched the content being repeated. (Appendix A)

For children and adults, we learn better when we understand the context of the new knowledge we acquire. In a repeated format, we know that MacGyver will meet the baddies, invent something, and escape to triumph at the end. In repeated content, we know and expect that Dub or Teletubbies will say goodbye at the end and wave. Again format repetition in a tertiary context - we know and expect that a university lecture will consist of a talk, taking notes and Q&A in a formula of expected experiences, and so we can absorb the other learning – the meaningful different content, better. What this means for Pampers Play and Learn African stories is that we need to provide the familiar daily context, the waterhole, and this provides the familiar, then we move on the new African story in each case.

For adults, we prefer our familiar formula of repetition to be less obvious – based on formats, genres but for young babies and children, they require direct content repetition, as well as repetition in another context that is both explicit and includes obvious content repetition – the same words, the same information again. After the age of 8, children prefer more adult-type genre format repetition than direct content repetition.

Pampers Play and Learns use of moving pictures, and its ability to communicate instantly across long distances, makes it a powerful motivator and campaigner. It can excite, and can be used to distribute simple messages/slogans, whether these are phonic, linguistic, social, political, or health-related (etc).

First, education is often about learning abstract content, complex concepts, detailed argument, and cognitive skills. In other words, learning is often verbal and invisible rather than visual and explicit. Broadcast television's privileging of the visual often 'hides' the argument; we watch in fascination, and our fascination prevents us from hearing the complexity of arguments. However, media that can be repeated, paused on DVD, placed into context, repeated - can use a show and tell method of learning extremely effectively with children at the concrete operations phase.  

Ingrid Bruynse

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{mospagebreak title=Appendix A}

Formative Research at the Children's Television Workshop
IN THE LATE 1960S, THE CHILDREN'S TELEVISION WORKSHOP (CTW) designed the first children's television program to address specific educational goals, Sesame Street. In an unprecedented partnership, television producers collaborated with formative researchers to create instructionally effective television based on the results of empirical investigation.

The CTW Model

CTW staff engaged in a cycle of planning, filming rough cuts, pilot testing with target audiences, and revising footage based on research results. This article reviews three of the major findings of the CTW researchers.


CTW researchers knew that they must catch and hold children's attention in order to teach them. Unlike a classroom setting, there was no teacher in the television environment to direct attention once it had wandered. One production technique found particularly effective in catching attention was animation.

During pilot testing, children viewed two sequences about the letter J, one with J as a static image and one with J as an animated image. During the viewings, researchers employed the distractor technique to measure attention (Palmer and Fisch, 2000).

Audiovisual stimuli (in the form of kaleidoscopic images projected onto a screen) played simultaneously with the J sequences. Every 7.5 seconds, researchers would note whether children were looking at or away from the television screen. The results indicated children attended better while viewing the animated J piece than when viewing the static J piece.

One of Sesame Street's educational goals was for viewers to learn the letters of the alphabet. Researchers pretested children on their ability to recognize and label individual letters and then had pilot test groups view content on that letter under different conditions. Not surprisingly, children improved in their ability to recognize and label letters after repeated viewings of the content (Lesser, 1974).

However, CTW researchers discovered a more complicated relationship between repetition and learning. Learning increased when repetition took place in three distinct ways: when the same segment was viewed repeatedly over a number of episodes, when the content was repeated within one episode but in a different format, and when the same format was used repeatedly to teach different content.  Interactivity

Critics in the 1960s predicted Sesame Street was doomed to fail because television was not an interactive enough media to facilitate learning. CTW researchers proved them wrong with what is now known as "The James Earl Jones Effect" (Lesser, 1974).

Producers filmed a segment in which stage and screen actor James Earl Jones recited the alphabet. Mr. Jones stared intensely at the camera. Moments later, the letter A appeared above his head. In his compelling voice, he then spoke the name of the letter. This sequence of events repeated throughout his one and a half minute recitation, maintaining wait times before the letter appeared on screen and before the letter's name was spoken.

When researchers showed this segment to children over time, they noted the following: During the initial viewing, children joined Mr. Jones in naming the letters. During subsequent viewings, the children anticipated Mr. Jones' spoken words and named the letter as soon as it appeared on screen. Finally, children were able to name the letter before it even appeared on screen. Clearly, children were interacting and learning!

Kristin Gibson
San Diego State Graduate Student