A mother sits folding laundry, her baby in the high chair beside her. “Here are mummy’s striped pajamas. They're red and blue and warm and fuzzy,” she says in a singsong voice. The baby gurgles at his mother, responds enthusiastically by waving his arms and kicking his little legs. Look at me, the mother thinks. I'm so silly. She carries on anyway, describing the frilly pillowcase she’s about to fold next. But she need not feel silly.
What many of us need to appreciate is the extent to which words impact children’s learning – not only in developing their vocabulary but especially, the spatial world and their later ability to problem solve. University of Chicago psychologist Dr. Susan Levine and her colleagues found children’s spatial abilities are in large part driven by what their parents say. In her study published in the journal Developmental Science, she says that the amount of talking parents do with very young children that describe features and properties of objects (i.e. heavy, big, little, round) predicts children’s problem solving success as they near kindergarten age.
Oriane Landry, psychology professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, works with preschoolers and children with autism. He says “There’s a strong link between emergent language skills and how that leads into their abilities in other areas.”
Oriane expands on the work of the early 20th century Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, known best in education circles for his theory on scaffolding children (younger children learning skills from slightly older children). Vygotsky’s work supports the idea that language fosters all of our other thinking skills, and that for the most part, when we are problem solving, we are doing so with language. “The language of thought is in fact language,” Oriane says. “We tend to draw heavily on our language skills in order to complete other thought processes (using inner dialogue) even well into adulthood.”
There is some controversy about how the relationship between thought and language emerges and what comes first – the language in order to have the concept versus the concept, then applying the language – but especially in the preschool period, as children are gaining more and more complex conceptual ideas, they are also gaining the language to go with it.
“If you've got a word then you can build a concept around it,” Oriane says. “If you don't have a word, a concept can be flighty – like a dream you can't hold onto – you can't describe it to someone. If you talk about that dream, you can hold onto it. If parents are encouraging language growth by being highly verbal themselves and describing the things around them, then the child is going to have a more complex vocabulary earlier on and also the tools to think with more sophistication and in greater complexity about the world around them.”
In today’s hyper-stimulated world, distracted as we are by our electronic devices, it seems like we have to make a conscious effort to lend our children our ears. In short, this means put down the electronic devices.
Kids, too. They spend an inordinate amount of time in front of square media (computers, iPads, iPods, television). There’s even a tablet that attaches to baby’s car seat! This is time robbed of the opportunity to talk.
In the course of the day, children often must listen quietly to the teacher, do homework and focus on extra-curricular activities that don't necessarily involve much opportunity for conversation.
When it comes to young children, overloading on electronics is cause for concern for people like educational psychologist and author, Jane Healy. She says at that age there is a critical period of brain growth that requires linguistic stimulation in order to develop normally.
“There’s a big shift neurologically between the ages five to seven. During that period a lot of networks are developing and firming up and getting ready to be used. These have to do with more abstract ways of thinking – being able to understand things at a much deeper level without having to touch and feel to understand it – fixing the learning,” says Jane.
Instead of the emphasis being on dialogue, that helps develop syntax, vocabulary, writing and reading skills, square media heavily stresses visual skills.
“Learning has to be an interaction between the child and the environment. Why does this happen? Why does this work this way?” Jane says.
Interestingly, Oriane’s research shows that before two and a half, children show no capacity to learn from electronic media. “After that age, they start to engage with it in a new way and suddenly treat it like something they can learn from.”
Of course, parents are certainly not expected to entertain their children constantly but consider setting down that electronic device when chatting with your child and look them in the eye. “You will not have your child for the rest of your life. You have an opportunity to build a good brain in your child,” Jane says.
Even when we do make time for conversation, some of us don't really know how to engage our children. “Where do I begin?” I have heard some parents say. “I read; I show him things. I do a puzzle with him. What else is there to do?” Our experts offer these six Dos and one Don’t:
LISTEN: Adults frequently think they're talking with children, but really they're talking to children, says Jane. “We are so busy lecturing them (because this is also our role), but in order to gauge what they are saying, you have to listen and be sensitive to where the child is coming from.”
Jane likens the process of cognitive development to building a coat closet. “Children do not have as many connections as we do. The more hooks you have, the more things you can hang on them.” We have accumulated a lot more cognitive hooks over the years and we assume that the child has the same frame of reference as we do, but the child doesn’t. Jane reminds us to forget ours and tune into theirs.
SAY “TELL ME MORE!”: “What do you mean by that?” “Oh my! That is so interesting! I never thought of that before.” These types of expressions encourage the child to expand on what they are saying. “Understand that they see things differently than we do,” Jane says.
SAY “SHOW ME!”: Follow our forefathers (or foremothers) and put the six-month-old in a carrier and take a walk with the three year-old, Oriane suggests. “Since the dawn of time, children have been toted along for the ride and shown the adult world and given jobs to do and spoken to.”
READ TOGETHER: Reading together is a great way to develop conversations. Ask, What do you think will happen next? Why do you think that happened? Then honour your child’s response, says Jane. “What they say is a legitimate reflection of where they are developmentally, whether you agree or not.”
PLAY TOGETHER: “Playing together can get you talking about the game,” says Jane. Studies show that early pretend play enhances the child’s capacity for cognitive flexibility and, ultimately, increased creative performance years later.
NARRATE: Talk to infants about what you are doing, says Oriane. Most people naturally use speech patterns where the voice slows down and goes up in a higher-pitched, melodic way. “Babies love it! They are more receptive to it and they learn better.” It’s not about content at this age, Oriane adds. “What matters is that you're engaging social skills, turn-taking skills and the relationship is evolving.” As they get older, children start to ask for clarification about things. They develop more complex cognitive structure.
DON'T REPEAT THEIR MISPRONUNCIATIONS: Oriane explains that kids think they are pronouncing the word right so if you mispronounce the word on purpose, it’s confusing. “Children will either pick up that you are making fun of them, or they will pick up the wrong word – they're not learning.”
The old adage “children should be seen, not heard” is thankfully a thing of the past. But how do we teach our children to be respectful, especially when talking with adults?
Beatrice Ekwa Ekoko is a Hamilton based writer and mother of three who enjoys deep chats.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, May 2015.