BY DEBBIE HAMPTON DECEMBER 10, 2014
If there existed one, simple thing you could do to improve your child’s performance every day at school, in addition to their long-term educational and health outcomes, earnings, and family stability, you’d want to do it, right?
Well, believe it or not, this one, simple thing does exist. And it’s probably even simpler than you think. The answer? Talk to your children.
Studies have shown that babies need something besides the latest, whiz-bang stroller, interactive toy, or car seat to get a good start to their intellectual, emotional and physical development. They need words — songs, nursery rhymes, casual chitchat, books and bedtime stories. All that babbling you find yourself doing when around an adorable toddler isn’t frivolous or silly: it’s brain-building. Talking to a baby doesn’t just encourage language development specifically. It’s essential to brain development overall.
Every time a caregiver has a positive, engaging verbal interaction with a child, neural connections are strengthened in their rapidly growing brain. That said, words streaming from a radio, television, or someone talking on a cellphone are of no benefit. Interesting, right?
Studies at Rice and Columbia Universities reported eye-opening findings about how many more words children who grow up in middle and upper-class homes hear on a daily basis as compared to lower-income children. During the first four years of life, a child from a lower-income household hears roughly 30 million fewer words, less than a third, than her more affluent peers.
What a child hears has direct consequences for what they learn and significant implications in the long run. This gap grows as the child does.
In addition to a lack of exposure to words over all, the words a child from a low-income family hears are often negative directives or words of discouragement. According to one study, the average child from a family on welfare hears 125,000 more words of discouragement than encouragement by the age of four. In comparison, a child from a high-income family will have heard 560,000 more words of praise than discouragement.
OK. So that’s the bad news (and something for us to keep in mind as a society). But there’s good news — regardless of class and/or income. In short, the solution is free and easy: talking. Not only is this brain-building for children, but experiencing the world of children, and communicating with them, is also an enriching experience for us as adults.
Eliminating the 30-million-word gap requires early intervention and is the focus of various government programs and The Thirty Million Words Initiative.
Here are a few simple ways you can help the preschoolers in your life build their vocabularies and brains:
- Introduce books to children at birth. Place cloth books in their crib. Get water proof books for the bath. Put books next to their car seat, on low shelves, and other places where they can be reached. And most importantly, read to them every day.
- Make gestures and facial expressions when talking to children to help them make sense of words.
- Use new and interesting words naturally in conversations. Saying new words in context helps children grasp their meaning.
- Sing and recite poetry and rhymes to playfully introduce vocabulary and inflection.
- Talk with children and encourage them to talk to each other. Ask questions; make comments; and invite children to think and share their ideas.
- Visit libraries and book stores. Most have children’s areas with story times, beautiful children’s books, and cozy places to curl up with a book.
- Keep the television off and reduce the amount of time a child, young and older, spends in front of a screen of any kind.