Adults as Natural Models | Prioritizing our Activities to Foster Imitation

Learning Through Imitation

Learning through imitation is not a novel idea. In fact most people would agree that children typically learn this way.

But in reality, parents and teachers underestimate their important role of being a model for their children. Being a model  means engaging in a meaningful activity in the proximity of a child.

Instead, it is quite common today for an adult to expect the child to take the lead in an activity (i.e., “What do you think? How would you do it?” are common questions posed to children both at school and at home). This is often with the intent of supporting children’s creative development and independence. Sometimes it is simply because the adult doesn’t have time.

More than ever, with many parents both working outside the home, children have few adults in their lives to demonstrate meaningful activities.

While letting the child take the lead is important on occasion, if children never have a consistent adult in their life modeling daily living and other skills, how can children today develop to their fullest potential?

The Power of Modeling

I was representing my preschool at a fair some years ago.  We had pumpkins out for the children to paint.

Most children spent a few minutes painting a pumpkin and were done, ready to move on to the next adventure.

There was one child, however, who sat with her pumpkin for a long, long time, perhaps 30 minutes or more, and was very meticulous in her painting.

I noted to the child’s mom her absorption in her work, and her mom revealed to me that she is herself an artist, and her daughter frequently sets up an easel alongside her to paint.

I found it intriguing that the child absorbed not only the painting technique, but also the focused energy, patience, and precision from her mom as well.

Note: Most of these images were taken from the web 
to help recreate the experience.


Modeling Our Interests

Recently, my niece and nephew came down from Northern California to visit. They are 3 and 7.

Radha demonstrates an Indian martial art.

I have an exercise routine in the morning that consists of leg kicks and stretches akin to yoga, but based on a traditional martial art from India.


My niece and nephew were right there with me during my entire exercise routine – doing the kicks behind me and crawling on top of me and underneath me like monkeys whenever I held a static pose. (I wish I had photos – but the ones I pulled from the web here give the idea – just imagine two monkeys on me at once.)

Despite her enthusiasm in this activity, my niece typically has an aversion to any type of circle-time activity –whether it is movement based, song based, or discussion based.

In fact, my niece often sits apart from the group and does not participate.

The movements in circle time are important because they are designed to develop spatial awareness, balance,  and mid-line crossings, among other things.

The home-school curriculum that my sister follows included a daily circle time. But because my niece did not want to participate, and my sister felt foolish doing the exercises by herself (nor did she want to force her daughter to do them), she abandoned circle-time altogether for awhile.

Authentic Modeling

It struck me that my niece might like exercising with her mom if my sister were doing it for herself.  For example, if my sister developed a personal exercise routine and engaged in it with focus and interest regardless of my niece’s participation.

Certainly children can intuit the degree of interest their parents have in an activity.  The more the parent’s interest, the more the children might be magnetically drawn to imitate it.

I am sure there are millions of personal stories out there where a child grows up to become an expert in a parent’s vocation or hobby.

What is important to remember is that the child learns by imitating  their parents’ activities – with the first few years of life being the most critical. They might not always be actively engaged in the activity when an adult models in front of them, but no doubt, they are absorbing the activity, the focus, and intent through many of their senses.

I think imitation is so natural that people take it for granted. And so parents put their children in preschool for longer and longer hours, depriving them of a chance to imitate and absorb experiences from them.

The Sámi people of Arctic Europe

Children in traditional societies must have been exposed to authentic adult modeling all of their waking hours. In contrast, the average child today sees little meaningful modeling from their parents due to parental work patterns and the heavy use of electronic devices.

What Does Modeling Look Like?

As modeling and imitation can occur in many forms, I will call the modeling discussed in this post Incidental Modeling.  The idea is that the adult is engaged in an activity that is important to the adult and the child happens to be nearby. This is different than an adult intentionally teaching or demonstrating an activity for a child (I address the latter type of modeling – purposeful modeling – in this post).

As incidental modeling is in decline in modern society, can it be resuscitated by consciously modeling in front of a child? Would it have the same effect as unconsciously modeling as was typical in traditional societies? Hopefully, yes.

Modern-Day Challenges

Children are wired to imitate. But they need the parent or other important adult to be there to model for them.

As most parents work away from home, children are not able to see their parents engaged in work activities. Then, too, many jobs today require extensive use of the computer. And many parents become absorbed in computers or other digital devices at home as well –whether work related or not.

Can children benefit by imitating their parents working on the computer, smart phone, or other digital device? Is it qualitatively the same as imitating more visible and comprehensible actions? I would guess not, especially when children are very young.


Educators as Models

Then, if parents don’t have the time or awareness to model their interests and skills for their children, can educators take on that role?

Right now, few early childhood educators would have incidental modeling on their radar.  Additionally, as most teachers’ hands are juggling supervision and teaching in a typical preschool classroom, dedicating a staff person to incidental modeling may be unrealistic.

Incidental Modeling at Waldorf

And yet, Waldorf education may do just that.  There are at least some Waldorf kindergarten classrooms where a part of the teacher’s job is to do handicrafts in front of the children – and not through teaching or demonstrating, but simply to be there in the role of adult model.

I personally propose that schools invite parent volunteers into the classroom to incidentally model their skills and interests for the children. In this case, the modeling might need to be preceded by a demonstration so the children understand the context.

Comments from Readers on This Post

“I really enjoyed this article. I have always been taught from my parents do as I say not as I do but naturally we do end up imitating what we see.’    

                ~ parent

I loved this blog post! It really would make anyone who reads it put their phone or laptop down and start doing some yoga or other physical activities!’   

                  ~ graduate student and early childhood educator

“Yes, I work at a preschool and I am constantly trying to be a model for the children I work with. For example, one day I started dribbling a ball just for fun and 2 minutes later, about 5 children were in the same area trying to dribble balls and soon after it became a basketball game.’

                   ~ graduate student and early childhood educator

“I work in an office that requires computer engagement and find it hard to disconnect. I’ve noticed my son’s compulsion toward tablet time and think my actions may be setting the precedent for a bad habit.’

                ~ parent

‘I have sat at a play dough table and played with and shaped play dough in interesting ways that children may not have thought of and have then seen them imitate what I am doing and test it out.’   

                   ~ graduate student and early childhood educator

‘I always feel I don’t have enough time to do what I enjoy so instead of waiting for time to do I will model what I love to do with my children.’

                ~ parent

“In my school we have parents come visit the school, but most of the things they do are teaching children a skill or supervising while the children do an activity. It would be interesting and very special to have parents come in and just do a thing they love.’

                   ~ graduate student and early childhood educator

‘I think that there is a lot of incidental modeling going on with children as they watch teachers perform tasks in the classroom. The missing link is that teachers, as you said in the post, don’t really think about the fact that it is taking place. Making teachers aware of the ways in which they can provide this for children would be very powerful.’ 

                   ~ graduate student and early childhood educator

“I’m going to try to participate in the activities we put out since I always think they’re fun and you’re telling me the kids will be more interested in them if they see me actually enjoying them.’

                   ~ graduate student and early childhood educator

A Historical View

Children imitate adults as they engage in their day-to-day activities, learning and absorbing the culture and knowledge of the community they live in.  This along with two other key ways of transmitting knowledge were part of the traditional modes of learning since ancient times.

For a brief overview of traditional education: 

What are your thoughts? Do you have any experiences with children learning through imitation and incidental adult modeling? Please share in the Comments box below!

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