Imitation research has come a long way since Dr. Meltzoff stuck out his tongue at a newborn and then watched as she stuck her tongue out at him. Infants begin imitating sounds, body movements and actions on objects during the first year of life. With age and experience, infants become more flexible in their thinking. They imitate across changes in context. Eventually, they remember actions after longer periods of time and can even infer another person’s intentions. Preschool-aged children imitate more complex sequences and use imitation to learn rules. Recent research has even helped our understanding of what’s going on inside the infant brain as children learn by imitation.
Imitation is one way to discover what children know and understand about the world before they can tell us. It is essential for social, emotional, and cognitive development. The social and emotional connections formed through imitation are reciprocal. Adults form a connection to children by imitating them and children form a connection to us by copying our actions. Imitation is a tool that children use to learn more about the world and themselves. In the process, they also develop a better understanding of other people and their own culture.