How Children Learn by Imitation and Example The Role of Object Functions for Deferred Imitation—Do Infants Selectively Retain and Forget Actions?

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Imitation—the act of observing and copying the actions of others—is the most important mechanism of learning for infants, toddlers, and young children.

Several studies have analyzed different patterns by which children imitate actions. One study showed that children not only imitate actions immediately after observing them, but they also reproduce an action or sequence of actions even after a delay of minutes, hours, days, or even weeks. This phenomenon is known as deferred imitation. Infants start showing deferred imitation at the age of six months, and it increases with age. However, the retention interval of younger infants is short. On the other hand, older infants can retain information longer and reproduce a larger number of actions than younger infants.

Another study showed that children do not blindly imitate what they see, but rather they weigh their observations against target actions. For example, if a dollhouse is placed on a table and an object (such as a small toy mouse) is moved across the table and into the house, twelve- to eighteen-month-old infants are more likely to place the object directly inside the house, interpreting the location as the goal. In contrast, younger infants are more likely to perceive the style of motion as the goal, and so they copy the motion instead. The object ends up anywhere on the table and is not placed inside the house.

A different study revealed that infants are able to distinguish between functional and arbitrary actions (i.e., actions that lead to definite outcomes versus actions that lead to no definite outcomes). Functional actions rely on an object’s distinctive qualities. For example, when an adult places a metal object onto a magnet, the child discovers a new and distinctive property and function of the magnet (that it can hold other objects). In contrast, arbitrary actions do not involve any distinctive object properties. For example, lifting an object and placing it back on the table may be defined as an arbitrary action.

To understand infant learning more clearly, researchers from the Institute of Psychology in Germany conducted a research study titled “The Role of Object Functions for Deferred Imitation—Do Infants Selectively Retain and Forget Actions?” The aim of the study was to understand deferred imitation and functional versus arbitrary actions in infants.

Design of the Study

Thirty-one healthy eighteen-month-old infants were chosen for the study. The test was conducted in a sparely furnished room with the child sitting on the lap of a caretaker and the researcher sitting opposite them. Six toys were chosen for the study.

After warm-up play for two minutes with an attractive toy, baseline testing was conducted. One of the toys was placed on a table. Once the child’s attention was drawn to the toy, the toy was handed over to the child for thirty seconds. After thirty seconds, the toy was taken away from the child. Then, a second toy was placed on the table, and the child was allowed to play with it. This process was repeated for all six toys.

After the baseline testing, the researcher demonstrated target actions to the child three times with each toy, each within thirty seconds. One functional action and one arbitrary action were preformed, and the demonstration was actively communicated with the child by saying, “Look, [Name], I will show you something! I will show it again!” Following the demonstration, there was a delay of thirty minutes, after which the child was again given the toy. The test achieved a positive result if the child imitated (or at least tried to imitate) the actions that were demonstrated.

More testing took place two weeks later in the same manner as before with the same toys and the following the same method.

A similar test was conducted with twelve-month-old infants. Thirty-one infants were enrolled. The procedure was identical to the first experiment. Following a warm-up period of two minutes, baseline testing was done. This was followed by a demonstration phase, which was conducted in the same way. This time, five toys were used instead of six and the additional testing two weeks later was not done.


As expected, a memory effect was observed in both twelve- and eighteen-month-old infants, showing that infants can acquire object-related actions by imitating a human model. Moreover, both twelve- and eighteen-month-old infants imitated significantly more functional actions than arbitrary ones. This finding is consistent with the fact that infants do not blindly copy what is demonstrated to them, but rather they imitate selectively.

In addition, the age groups differed in imitation preferences. Eighteen-month-old infants imitated both functional and arbitrary actions. However, twelve-month-old infants almost exclusively imitated the functional actions and disregarded the arbitrary ones.

Regarding memory retention, the deferred imitation rate was higher after the short thirty-minute interval than after the long two-week delay, indicating that infants forget target actions. The forgetting rates were equal for both the functional and the arbitrary actions.

These findings strongly indicate that deferred memory is not only limited by memory capacity, but it also relies heavily on the functionality of target actions. Infants are very likely to imitate the things they see others doing. If your child is observing habits he or she shouldn’t follow, now might be the time to stop them.

The Role of Object Functions for Deferred Imitation- Do Infants Selectively Retain and Forget Actions?
Children not only imitate actions immediately after observing them, but they also reproduce an action or sequence of actions even after a delay of minutes, hours, days, or even weeks.


Oturai, Gabriella, Thorsten Knolling, Laura Rubio Hall, and Monika Knopf. “The Role of Object Functions for Deferred Imitation—Do Infants Selectively Retain and Forget Actions?” Infant Behavior and Development 35, no. 2 (2012): 195–204. Retrieved from

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