A Natural History of Repetition

Keywords: Montessori, repetition, pre-school aged children


The purpose of this study was to understand typically developing children’s repetitive behavior in a free-play, daycare setting. By studying repetition in a non-Montessori setting, we tested the assumption that repetition is a characteristic behavior of all young children and not limited to the Montessori environment. Although Maria Montessori identified repetition during her observations, there is little empirical evidence to support her claim: most research has considered repetition in terms of psychopathology. We collected naturalistic observational data on 31 3- to 6-year-old children for a total of 101 hours to investigate the frequency, contexts, and structure of repetitive bouts. Multilevel model results suggest the ubiquity of repetition, as all children in the study engaged in motor repetition. Furthermore, repetition occurred throughout all free-play activities (construction, animation, fantasy play, rough-and-tumble play, and undirected activity), although repetition was not equally distributed across activities. Motor repetition was not equal across ages either; younger children engaged in more motor repetition than did older children. To understand the structure of repetition, our study also looked at the length of repetition bouts, which ranged from 2 to 19 repetitions and averaged 2.86 repetitions per bout. This natural history of repetition is an influential starting point for understanding the role of repetition in development and is informative to both Montessori and non-Montessori early childhood educators.

Author Biographies

Anne E. Jones, University of Lethbridge

Anne Jones is a PhD student at the University of Lethbridge and a trained Primary Montessori guide.

S.P. Henzi, University of Lethbridge

S.P. Henzi is a professor at the University of Lethbridge.

Louise Barrett, University of Lethbridge

Louise Barrett is a professor at the University of Lethbridge, where she holds a Canada Research Chair in Cognition, Evolution and Behaviour.


Barbado Murillo, D., Caballero Sánchez, C., Moreside, J., Vera-García, F. J., & Moreno, F. J. (2017). Can the structure of motor variability predict learning rate? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 43(3), 596–607. http://doi.org/10.1037/xhp0000303

Bartoń, K. (2016). MuMIn: Multi-level model inference (R package version 1.15.6) [Computer software]. https://CRAN.R-project.org/package=MuMIn

Bates, D., Maechler, M., Bolker, B., & Walker, S. (2015). Fitting linear mixed-effects models using lme4. Journal of Statistical Software, 67(1), 1–48. doi:10.18637/jss.v067.i01

Bodfish, J. W., Symons, F. J., Parker, D. E., & Lewis, M. H. (2000). Varieties of repetitive behavior autism: Comparisons to mental retardation. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 30, 237–243. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1005596502855

Bond, T., & Tryphon, A. (2009). Piaget and method. In U. Muller, J. I. M. Carpendale, & L. Smith (Eds.), The Cambridge companion to Piaget (pp. 171–199). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Coll, C. G. (Ed.). (n.d.). Child Development methodological recommendations. Retrieved from Child Development website: https://www.srcd.org/sites/default/files/file-attachments/cd_methodological_recommendations.pdf

Eilam, D. (2015). The cognitive roles of behavioral variability: Idiosyncratic acts as the foundation of identity and as transitional, preparatory, and confirmatory phases. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 49, 55–70. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2014.11.023

Evans, D. W., Leckman, J. F., Carter, A., Reznick, S., Henshaw, D., King, R. A., & Pauls, D. (1997). Ritual, habit, and perfectionism: The prevalence and development of compulsive-like behavior in normal young children. Child Development, 68, 58–68. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.1997.tb01925.x

Gerbier, E., & Toppino, T. C. (2015). The effect of distributed practice: Neuroscience, cognition, and education. Trends in Neuroscience and Education, 4(3), 49–59. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.tine.2015.01.001

Harrison, X. A. (2014). Using observation-level random effects to model overdispersion in count data in ecology and evolution. PeerJ. doi:10.7717/peerj.616

Hartig, F. (2017). DHARMa: Residual diagnostics for hierarchical (multi-level/mixed) regression models (R package version 0.1.5) [Computer software]. Retrieved from https://CRAN.R-project.org/package=DHARMa

Honey, E., Leekam, S., Turner, M., & McConachie, H. (2007). Repetitive behavior and play in typically developing children and children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 37, 1107–1115. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-006-0253-4

Lee, T. D., & Genovese, E. D. (1988). Distribution of practice in motor skill acquisition: Learning and performance effects reconsidered. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 59(4), 277–287. https://doi.org/10.1080/02701367.1988.10609373

Montessori Children’s House Academy. (2019). Maria Montessori. Retrieved from http://www.montessoriway.ca/montessori.

Montessori Alberta. (n.d.). The Montessori Method. Retrieved from https://www.montessorialberta.com/

Montessori & Me Private Schools of Edmonton. (n.d.). The Montessori Method. Retrieved from http://www.montessoriandme.com/M%26M/Montessori_Method.html

Montessori, M. (1966). The secret of childhood. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

Montessori, M. (1995). The absorbent mind. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company. (Original work published 1967)

Montessori, M. (2007a). The advanced Montessori Method (Vol. 1). Amsterdam, Netherlands: Montessori-Pierson. (Original work published 1918)

Montessori, M. (2007b). The discovery of the child. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Montessori-Pierson (Original work published 1948)

Montessori, M. (2007c). Education and peace. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Montessori-Pierson. (Original work published 1972)

Montessori, M. M. (1956). The human tendencies and Montessori education. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Association Montessori Internationale.

Montessori School of Calgary. (n.d.). Montessori philosophy. Retrieved from http://www.montessorischoolofcalgary.com

Mooney, E. L., Gray, K. M., & Tonge, B. J. (2006). Early features of autism. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 15, 12–18. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00787-006-0499-6

Mosaic Montessori Academy. (n.d.). What is the Montessori Method and why is it ideal for your child. Retrieved from https://mosaicmontessori.ca/montessori/montessori-method/

Nakagawa, S., Johnson, P. C. D., & Schielzeth, H. (2017). The coefficient of determination R2 and intra-class correlation coefficient from generalized linear mixed-effects models revisited and expanded. Journal of the Royal Society Interface, 14(134), 20170213–11. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsif.2017.0213

One World Montessori School. (n.d.). Education. Retrieved from http://montessoriedmonton.com/education/

Piaget, J. (1952). The origins of intelligence in children. New York: International Universities Press.

R Core Team. (2017). R: A language and environment for statistical computing [Computer software]. R Foundation for Statistical Computing, Vienna, Austria. Retrieved from https://www.R-project.org/

Radomsky, A. S., Dugas, M. J., Alcolado, G. M., & Lavoie, S. L. (2014). When more is less: Doubt, repetition, memory, metamemory, and compulsive checking in OCD. Behavior Research and Therapy, 59, 30–39. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2014.05.008

Rising Scholars Montessori. (n.d.). An overview of the Montessori Method. Retrieved from http://risingscholars.ca/about/montessori-method-overview/

Santer, J., Griffiths, C., & Goodall, D. (2007). Free play in early childhood: A literature review. London, England: National Children’s Bureau. Retrieved from http://www.playengland.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/free-play-in-early-childhood.pdf

Schutte, G. M., Duhon, G. J., Solomon, B. G., Poncy, B. C., Moore, K., & Story, B. (2015). A comparative analysis of massed vs. distributed practice on basic math fact fluency growth rates. Journal of School Psychology, 53(2), 149–159. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsp.2014.12.003

Smith, P., & Connolly, K. (1980). The ecology of preschool behavior. Cambridge, England: Oxford University Press.

Standing, E. M. (1998). Maria Montessori: Her life and work. New York, NY: Penguin Group. (Original work published 1957)

Sunflowers Bilingual Montessori Centre. (n.d.). The history of the Montessori Method. Retrieved from https://www.sunflowersmontessori.ca/what-is-montessori

Thelen, E. (1979). Rhythmical stereotypies in normal human infants. Animal Behavior, 27, 699–715. https://doi.org/10.1016/0003-3472(79)90006-X

Thelen, E. (1980). Determinants of amounts of stereotyped behavior in normal human infants. Ethology and Sociobiology, 1, 141–150. https://doi.org/10.1016/0162-3095(80)90004-7

Thelen, E. (1981). Rocking, kicking and waving: Contextual analysis of rhythmical stereotypies in normal human infants. Animal Behavior, 29, 3–11. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0003-3472(81)80146-7

Turner, M. (1999). Annotation: Repetitive behavior in autism: A review of psychological research. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, and Allied Disciplines, 40, 839–849. https://doi.org/10.1111/1469-7610.00502

Ypma, J. (2014). Introduction to nloptr: An R interface to NLopt (Technical report). Retrieved from https://mran.revolutionanalytics.com/snapshot/2014-09-12/web/packages/nloptr/nloptr.pdf