The Netflix series “Old Enough!” follows Japanese children as young as 2 being sent on errands that require them to navigate streets, make purchases or pick up and deliver items, and even ride public transit on their own.
It’s nerve-wracking — for the parents and for viewers — though no child is ever far from helpful neighbors and watchful camera-crew members. Still, the premise of the show is particularly shocking to families and caregivers in the United States. For most of us, the idea of sending toddlers alone on such adventures is unimaginable.
And yet, “Old Enough!” shows us that children are more capable than we may realize, which raises the question: How do children learn to do complex tasks at these early ages? The answer is the 3R’s of Early Learning: Relationships, Repetition, Routines — the name of our approach to supporting children’s learning.
The 3R’s of early learning work together to support children’s brain development and learning. The first “R” — relationships — is the foundation for learning. From the time they are born, children have hundreds to thousands of interactions with family members, caregivers and, often, other children each day.
Early interactions, such as a caregiver responding to a newborn’s cry by feeding them or celebrating when a toddler takes their first steps, are the building blocks of nurturing and responsive relationships. Each of these interactions promote opportunities for children to experience the second “R” of early learning: repetition.
Connections in the brain are built through repeated opportunities to practice and learn skills. As children engage in back-and-forth interactions with people in their lives who are familiar, nurturing and responsive, they experience repeated learning opportunities. Over time, these experiences build a variety of skills, including those needed to carry out complex tasks like the ones seen in “Old Enough!”
For example, while in a grocery store, a parent might ask a child to pick a desired item up off a shelf and put it in the shopping basket. When the child puts the item in the basket, the parent may then respond in a positive way to let them know they did what was expected. Similar interactions might occur multiple times within one trip to the grocery store, providing repeated opportunities for the child to learn how to put groceries in the basket. Some children need more repetition than others, but for all children, repetition advances learning. This is especially true when it occurs within the context of the third “R” of early learning: routines.
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The routines of daily life — such as playing, preparing and eating meals, going to the grocery store and walking to the bus stop — provide many opportunities for children to practice and learn skills in ways that are useful, meaningful and motivating. While learning opportunities often occur naturally within everyday routines, they can also be created intentionally to ensure children receive more repetition to practice specific skills.
When a parent encourages their child to put the groceries in the basket instead of doing it for them, they are creating opportunities for the child to learn a variety of skills while participating in a familiar and motivating routine. Likewise, when they are ready to make their purchases, a parent might choose to encourage the child to give the money to the cashier, who takes the payment, thanks the child and gives them their groceries.
When these opportunities are provided consistently and occur repeatedly over multiple trips to the grocery store, the child learns how to put desired items in the basket, take them to the counter and pay for them.
The 3R’s of early learning are important because they focus on how children learn in addition to what they learn. Interactions at home, in early education and care programs, and in the community offer thousands of opportunities to support children’s early learning and brain development. When relationships, repetition and routines are combined and consistent, children are able to do amazing things.
And that is the takeaway of “Old Enough!”
While we are not here to advocate for children entering the world alone before a parent or caregiver is comfortable, we do fully support that notion that the cultivation of the 3R’s of Early Learning: Relationships, Repetition, Routines, help to support early childhood development and learning in ways that create strong foundations for future life success.
Crystal Bishop is an assistant Research Scientist in the Anita Zucker Center for Excellence in Early Childhood Studies at the University of Florida. Patricia Snyder is a Distinguished Professor of Special Education and Early Childhood Studies in the College of Education, the David Lawrence Jr. Endowed Chair, and the director of the Anita Zucker Center for Excellence in Early Childhood Studies at the University of Florida.