Imitation continues to be an important part of children’s learning during the preschool years, and prepares them for formal schooling. For example, by age three, children learn rules and strategies through imitation. In the photo on the left, a child is sorting yellow and green boats and planes by a visible property (color) after watching an adult do the same. This seems easy enough. But in the photo on the right, the ducks are visually the same. What is not obvious by looking is that the ducks make two different sounds when shaken. Two ducks make a ringing sound and two ducks make a rattle sound. The 3-year-olds carefully watch the adult sort these identical ducks into two bins in the gray tray. Then they sort the ducks by the same rule. This suggests that by 3 years of age, children can learn the rules another person uses simply by watching and studying their behavior.

This type of rule learning allows the child to be ready for school. In school, children will not be asked to imitate exactly what the peer or teacher does. Rather, children need to learn and duplicate more general principles, rules, or strategies. They will learn to put objects of one kind in one place, and objects of another kind in a different place. Being able to learn abstract rules by watching others helps children engage in basic forms of scientific thinking.