“Communication is everything.” It’s what makes personal relationships, a successful business and even a winning football team work – and it’s a message you hear all the time.
As adults, we all remember having to learn new vocabulary words in grade school. However, we forget that communication even at its most basic form – listening and responding in conversation with words, facial expressions and tone of voice – is a learned skill.
Children’s brains can best absorb speech and language in their first three years of life, so it’s important that you nurture this development from day one. Talk, listen, read, sing and play games with your child early and often. New experiences are what helps build connections in the brain that will affect your child’s life forever and, by age 5, his or her brain will have grown to 90 percent of its adult size.
While it’s important to specifically carve out time to read and sing with your child, it’s equally valuable to just talk to them all the time. Even if they’re too young to respond, they’re listening to every word you say and soaking in the sounds, vocabulary and ideas you are expressing.
In fact, speech and language lessons start in the uterus, where your unborn baby hears and responds to familiar voices. After birth, your newborn learns language by listening to the basic and distinct sounds that make up words. And it just continues to build from there.
The very best “toy” for your young child is you. TV shows don’t genuinely interact with or respond to children – both of which are key to them learning language and communication. Even if it’s baby babble, never ignore your child’s attempts at communication. Encourage it by responding to their sounds and having real conversations.
So talk, talk and talk some more. But about what?
Talk about everyday routine
Talk about what you’re doing as you’re doing it. You might feel a bit like a sportscaster giving the play-by-play description of a ball game. That’s OK. This kind of discussion helps children pay attention to what they see happening, use their memory and group things into categories. While conversation about subjects like putting on socks or the weather may seem mundane to you, you’re building your child’s vocabulary and communication skills.
Children learn through play, so let them play with a kitchen sponge when you’re cooking dinner, or with clothes when you’re doing laundry. It will help teach them about everyday life.
You can even tell stories about everyday routine to help your child handle various situations he or she encounters – like struggling to share a toy that a peer also wants to play with. To use this strategy, tell the story in the third person using your child’s name as the main character. Describe the situation, concept or social skill using an introduction, body and conclusion. Your story can address a topic your child is struggling with (e.g. sharing) and should describe that topic and your child’s feelings regarding the situation (e.g. anger, sadness). You can use the story to give examples of appropriate behaviors your child can use in the situation (e.g. taking turns) and show how those behaviors can affect how the story ends (e.g. having fun together, finding a new toy to play with).
Talk about emotions
Communication isn’t words alone! When you’re talking to your child, be sure to vary your tone of voice and display appropriate facial expressions and body movements to reflect the emotions involved with what you’re talking about. Is the subject funny? Sad? Happy? Then be sure to name those emotions with words.
Similarly, it’s important to talk about the emotions that you or your child is feeling. If your child is feeling sad, mirror that emotion with your own body language and talk about sadness.
Talk about objects
Whether it’s a manmade object like a school bus or natural object like a pine cone, there’s an unlimited supply of actual things you can talk to your child about. On a day that you feel like you’ve run out of objects, go on a field trip to a zoo, aquarium or children’s museum – or just take a walk. As long as the object is safe, discussion about it is fair game. Where did it come from? How do you use it? What color is it? What does it smell like? Sound like? Feel like? Remember – things that seem obvious and basic to you are a mystery to your young child, who is learning to explore.
Talking about characteristics will also teach your child how to categorize. You can teach your child reasoning skills by talking about similarities and differences. As he or she gets older, ask your child to weigh in on why certain objects match and others don’t. Correct your child if he or she is wrong, but be sure to fully explain why your reasons are correct.
You can also start presenting the same information in different ways. For example, if you usually ask your child to find his or her pants in the morning while getting dressed, instead ask, “Can you find the clothes you wear on your legs?”
Talk about your child’s interests
At 3 to 5 years old, begin to challenge your child with questions. Your child is starting to build concepts of how things work and why at this age, so switch roles and encourage him or her to do the narrating. Start slow by asking open-ended questions to prompt and encourage your child to talk about observations. Try to ask your child 20 questions a day.
Then, let your child take the lead on conversation subjects while you become the guide who can help enrich his or her knowledge on those subjects. Allow your child extended time with materials or toys related to his or her interests, and let him or her explore freely while playing. Materials that can be used in many ways, like blocks, paint and cardboard boxes, can be great for this and provide a springboard for discussion. Resist the urge to tell your child “how” to play. This approach will help your child develop a love for learning.