Children are amazing. They are constantly learning and growing. As parents, we have a tremendous opportunity to shape their language, overall development and set them up for success. By age 3, children usually have 1000 words at their disposal. However, children in poverty do not have the luxury of hearing as many words, and thus have smaller and limited vocabularies. Being exposed to language is key to helping kids pick up words and build their vocabularies. This is what is termed the “word gap” in the press and journals. (RELATED: Language-Gap study bolsters a push for preK) Pediatricians, educators and public health providers have a key role in helping parents understand that they are their child’s first teachers and talking with their children is important to building brains.
How can pediatricians help parents learn HOW to bridge the gap?
Turn every day moments into learning moments by interacting with your child during your daily routines. Kids are like sponges. They pick up on our actions and they pick up on our words. Use this to your advantage by showing your child how you use language while talking with them, siblings, and partners. They are always listening and learning!
- Tune In to your child’s needs and be an appreciative audience. I think sometimes technology and life are the biggest barriers to this. Remember to turn off cell phones, TV and all screens to help parents stay in the moment with their children. Watching and commenting on what they are doing tells children, “Hey, mom and dad see me. They like what I am doing. Let me show them what I can do…” Your children love your attention. Even taking a few moments each day of uninterrupted time means so much to them…and can show you all the wonderful things your little one is learning. Watching how they play and seeing where their imaginations take them can give you a window into their brains.
- Talk more: Sit on the floor with your child and watch what he or she is doing. When we play with our young kids, we often ask a lot of questions. However that takes a lot of mental energy to stay one step ahead of your child and quite frankly feels a little bit like 20 questions over time. Instead, sit back and watch them play for a little while and then describe out loud what you see them doing (“Hmm, you got the red car and you are pushing it around. It is going fast. It is now going up the hill and under the bridge!”) Practice just observing and describing what you see them doing. In doing so, kids will be delighted to have an audience and will “ham it up” and do more. They love the special attention you spend just by noticing them and their actions. See my other blog post: Time In: The Foundation of Parent-Child Relationships
You can turn everyday moments into opportunities to boost your child’s language: Talk out loud as you are shopping (“This is an apple. It is red. You like apples because they are sweet. They make a crunchy sound when you bite them!”) or when cooking (“I am stirring the food in the pot. Look at that, there is an orange carrot in there…I see some pasta. Oh that green circle is a pea.”). Yes, sometimes it may feel a little odd to be talking aloud at home, in public and in the car while driving but talking out loud gives your child the building blocks of language.
- Take Turns: talking is a two-way street. After you observe what your child is doing and comment on their actions, kids will be delighted to tell you more. Even infants who are beginning to make cooing and babbling sounds can be encouraged to understand that talking is about listening, taking it all in and then responding. Parents will often coo back at their baby…and then be rewarded with that sweet grin of happiness. This back and forth interaction is important in conversations. Kids are not just empty vessels to fill with words–we can encourage them to share their words with us. As they grow, their grasp of language becomes more complex. Building on their words helps encourage continued talk and increases their vocabularies! (Kid: Car…; Parent: yes, that is a red car. It is shiny. Kid: Shiny car. Parent: that shiny car’s wheels go round and round…see?)
Try these skills out and sit back and be amazed. Parents can continue these skills while reading and singing to their children (RELATED: Pediatrics group recommends reading aloud to children from birth) But most importantly have fun!
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RELATED: To help language skills of children, a study finds, text their parents with tips (A great study to help parents remember to make everyday moments count!)
Get a copy of Dr. Dana Suskind’s book, Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain