How to teach my child to imitate me during a game?

Imitation is one of the most powerful tools we have for learning. As a baby learns to speak, he mimics the sounds made by the adults around him. When a child arrives in a new environment and watches children jumping on a rope, he will imitate them to join the game. We imitate adults to learn the unwritten rules of the culture and society in which we are living.

In fact, there’s not just one type of imitation, but all kinds of imitation. We imitate actions with objects, body movements, voices and sounds, others’ facial expressions, and more. However, many children with autism have difficulty using this strategy, and imitate the environment in a reduced way. As a result, they miss a lot of opportunities for natural learning and integration into the environment. But (and this is an important but), we can definitely help them train and strengthen the imitation muscle! We will start by imitating actions with objects (mainly because this is the easiest thing to teach and learn) and use the Early Start Denver Model Therapeutic Intervention techniques to do so.


Step One – Imitation of a familiar action

1.      Find a toy that your children like to play with. Without motivation, there is no learning! For this example, a musical instrument was chosen – for example, a drum!

2.      Let the child play the drum and see what he does with it. Suppose he hits the drum – we will imitate his action and start drumming. If your child stops during the turn and enjoys it, you can use two drums. If not – use one drum and play it in turns. The idea is that we create a situation of imitation with an action that the child already knows and performs naturally.

3.      After we drum a little, we will stop. We will wait for our child to do the action too, now it’s his turn. It should be relatively simple because we chose an action he already knows how to do! If he still has a hard time getting started, since he is not used to the idea of playing in turns, we will give him physical support and gently help him. If he seems to get the idea, we will release our help and allow him to continue independently. Very important – when he’s playing, do not take the drum back immediately. We do not want him to experience a negative result after the imitation. On the contrary, we want him to get reinforcement for the imitation and continue to enjoy!

4.      After our children have been imitating and drumming for a while, it’s time for our turn is again. We’ll take the drum and drum on it. It is important to be playful, get excited, and enjoy the game with your child. Accompany the activity with cheerings and songs.

5.      Keep doing this as long as you and your child are having fun.


* Important note! Note that you are not telling your child what to do (for example: “Here, drum!”). We want him to learn to imitate, not just listen to your instruction (:


Step Two – Now You Begin

This stage is almost identical to the previous one. After you have practiced the game several times, try to start the game.

When you take the drum out of the box, start hitting it and drumming first. Yes, at this point we are still drumming, the action your child is familiar with. Only this time, it is not him who begins the chain of imitations but you.

Remember – if your child does not imitate, you can help him physically, at least in the beginning. When he gets it, it is also essential to let go and let him do it independently.

It is recommended to stay at this stage until your child relatively consistently imitate the actions you did first. A good rule of thumb is to find about 8-10 such activities (not just with one game, but in all the games you enjoy playing together).


Step three – an extension to new operations

At this point, we would like to teach the child how to imitate new actions on objects. For the most part, this will not be the usual thing we do with the item, but something a little unusual, but fun and interesting. Here are some examples of actions that can be taken with a drum:

·         Put the drum on the head and pretend we are sneezing and the drum is falling.

·         Roll the drum on its side like a ball

·         Rotate the drum like a spinning top

·         Change the drumming tempo very fast!


So how do we teach our children to imitate those new actions?

1.      We will start with what we already know, imitating our child in an action he is already familiar with.

2.      After a while, we will introduce a new action in our turn! After we finish, we will pass the toy on to our children and wait for him to do so. If he does not do it independently, we will help him physically.

3.      After he imitated this new action, with or without assistance, we will allow him to continue playing with the toy a little more, and in the way he wants. We want him to be reinforced on the imitation!

4.      We will continue on this back and forth, and from time to time, we will add a new action and teach our children to imitate it!


Next, you will teach your children how to imitate not just one action but a sequence of related or unrelated actions. But that’s already a topic for a separate post!


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