Help Your Child Talk by Playing and Pretending

Today, we’ve reached the 20th extract from How To Help Your Child Talk and Grow Smarter: your chance to learn more about the way your child learns to talk.
If you’re a new reader, CLICK HERE to read How To Help Your Child Talk and Grow Smarter from the very beginning.This link takes you to the first post, so you can read the extracts in sequence. I try to post every Friday, by noon GMT. 

This week’s extract shows how your baby begins to develop his understanding of ‘pretending’.  This is important, as we saw last week, because it leads him to discover how to use symbols. Language, both spoken and written, is a complex system of symbols.

Play begins as your baby looks closely at his toys during his first year. He puts things in his mouth, turns them over, pokes them and shakes them. Rattles, soft toys, a mother’s earrings: they all come in for the ‘see it, feel it, suck it’ treatment as he finds out what these strange things are, and what they can do. 

He needs time to understand how each object looks, sounds, tastes, smells and feels before he moves on to the next stage. Throughout his first year, your baby’s play revolves around his five senses and real objects. Towards the end of the year, he uses real objects for their intended purpose. He drinks from his cup and maybe uses a hairbrush on his own hair. 

 Play: experiment
Once he becomes familiar with objects, he notices that some have a relationship to others. He puts a spoon in and out of a cup and makes stirring movements. He tries to put other objects in the cup, and finds that some things fit while others, such as bricks, may not fit so well in a cup, but sit nicely on top of each other. He explores constantly, finding out more about the properties of everything around him.

Soon he starts “pretending”, using toys as though they are the real thing. He pretends to drink from a toy cup, or brushes his own hair with a doll’s size brush. At first, he does these pretend actions to himself, but then he begins to offer a “drink” to teddy or brushes dolly’s hair. 

Teddy is like a real person to him now. He might kiss him and wash him. He reproduces aspects of his own life through his play with a teddy or a doll. Let him take teddy everywhere, exploring the world of make believe and expanding his understanding of language. 

Come back next week to find out how you can enjoy this exciting stage with your toddler, and help him learn to talk at the same time. 

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How To Help Your Child Talk and Grow Smarter: Understanding Words

Here’s the latest extract  from How To Help Your Child Talk and Grow Smarter: your chance to learn more about the way your child learns to talk.

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The third key that unlocks the mysteries of language for your child, is understanding.

In this extract, I explain a little about what it means to a baby and toddler to begin to understand words.

If you’re a new reader, CLICK HERE to read How To Help Your Child Talk and Grow Smarter from the very beginning.This link takes you to the first post, so you can read the extracts in sequence. At the end of each week’s post you’ll see a link to take you on to the next extract. I try to post every Friday, by noon GMT. 
Understanding: meanings
One of the beautiful properties of language is that most words have a range of meanings. When you hear the work “dog”, you visualize a dog. You have a picture in your mind. Very likely the mental picture you have is different from the picture anyone else has. This is because the meaning of the word depends on your life experiences.
If you own a dog, you may think of him first. If your own dog’s a labrador, you’ll have a picture of a labrador in your mind, while your friend who has a dachshund will imagine her dog when she hears the word. 
Understanding: making sense of sounds
For your baby, the first step in learning the meaning of words is linking the word to just one thing: in this case, a dog. Remember that, in his first year, “dog” is a string of sounds that has no meaning. 
He hears that collection of sounds repeated many times. It begins to have a familiar ring about it, until he notices that every time he hears those sound combinations, that furry animal that barks and licks is in the room. 
Every time he hears that particular string of sounds, there is this thing that you call “dog” around. At first, it may be the family dog. Then he may hear those sounds while you point to another dog next door or to a picture in a book. He hears “dog” each time.
Perhaps then, the word refers to any animal with four legs, or to anything with a collar. It could be any or all of these. Gradually, he learns that different animals have different names, or labels, and he recognizes those different labels.
His understanding grows so fast that by 2 years old he understands 200 words and more. 
Understanding: toddlers
Your toddler starts to realize that words can go together in phrases. When you say “give it to daddy”, the words he picks out are “give” and “daddy”. These words carry the important meaning of the sentence, and the rest of the sentence is unimportant. Help him understand by emphasizing the important words you say, and by often using short, simple sentences. 
Understanding: phrases 
Next, your child learns how words combine into phrases and sentences. “The cat sits” for example.
Grammatical markers, such as “-ing” and “-ed” help to increase the number of meanings attached to those words and phrases. You can say, “the cat sat”: changing one vowel sound in “sit” from “i” to “a” changes the tense of the phrase, putting it in the past. You can also add markers to turn the phrase into the future tense: “the cat will sit.” 
Understanding: frustration 
Temper tantrums are likely in your 2-year old child, often the result of the frustration he feels. He can’t understand your explanation for denying him those sweets or toys he wants. He understands “no” but not “they’re bad for you.” 
He can’t explain his own feelings of frustration, because his language skills have yet to reach a stage of development that allows him to put his feelings into words. No wonder he screams and kicks.

Often, sign language helps, as he uses a set of simple signs more easily than putting together the words and saying them so people understand. If you use sign language with your toddler, make sure you always say the words as you make the sign. You want your child to hear words in context many, many times, before he learns to say them himself.  

Come back next week for another extract. CLICK HERE

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Help Your Child Talk: Listening Games for Your Baby

Here’s extract number 9 from How To Help Your Child Talk and Grow Smarter: your chance to learn more about the way your child learns to talk.

This extract introduces games to play to help your child develop his listening skills.

If you’re a new reader, CLICK HERE to read How To Help Your Child Talk and Grow Smarter from the very beginning.This link takes you to the first post, so you can read the extracts in sequence. At the end of each week’s post you’ll see a link to take you on to the next extract. I try to post every Friday, by noon GMT.

Notice how your baby listens attentively to the noises around him during his first year. He may stop what he’s doing to listen to a new sound, and he’s likely to turn to search for something interesting, such as the sound of another baby. He turns if you make a quiet noise behind his back.

Listening: familiar sounds
From around six months, he recognises familiar words. When you say the name of a family member, he turns to look at them. He enjoys the sound of his own voice and makes repetitive babbling nonsense sounds, such as “ba-ba-ba”. He needs to spend time with you, copying your babbling noises and laughing.

Listening: activities for babies
Always play listening games in a quiet room and turn off the TV and radio. Play when you and your baby are happy and relaxed. If one of you is not enjoying the game, stop playing and try again another time.

Listening: baby activities: noisy rattles
Find two or three different rattles or soft squeaky toys. Shake or squeak the loudest of these on one side of your baby, where he cannot see it. Watch him turn his head towards the sound. Shake the rattle from a different direction, then from another.

Take your time and give your baby a chance to enjoy the sound and to turn and see the rattle. If he reaches for the rattle, let him have it and let him play with it himself.

Use another of the noisemakers, perhaps one that makes a quieter sound, and squeak that in a place where your baby can’t see it.

Whisper his name, or rattle a piece of paper.

If you think he had difficulty hearing the sounds, ask a health professional for advice.

Listening: baby activities: babbling
Babbling is repeating of speech sounds many times. It begins at around 6 months old and as he babbles. he practices all the speech sounds, ready for the time he begins talking.

Choose a time when you and your baby are looking at each other. This could be as you finish changing his nappy, or give him his feed, or perhaps as he sits in his bouncing cradle.

Make repetitive sounds: “ba-ba-ba” or “ch-ch-ch” and see if he responds. If he makes sounds of his own, babble them back to him. Don’t worry that there are no real words attached to the sounds, just have fun.

Listening: baby activities: what’s that?
When you hear noises around the house, draw your baby’s attention to them by saying, “What’s that?” Take him to see whatever makes the noise. The cat may be miaowing or Daddy may be opening the front door. Through constant repetition, your baby associates the sound with the activity.

Listening: baby activities: nursery rhymes
Keep singing to your baby as you bath him, or change him.

Turning on the tape recorder to let him listen on his own is nowhere near as good for his future language skills as singing yourself. Remember that song is a form of communication. You want your child to communicate with you, not with a piece of machinery.

CDs are, though, worth their weight in gold on long car journeys.

Come back next week for another extract, all about your baby’s listening skills: why they matter and how you can help him learn to listen. A link will appear HERE.

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How to help your child talk and grow smarter: early language development non-verbal communication and signing

Your first communication with your baby is through body langauge: through the five senses. Touch, vision, taste and smell are just as important as hearing to a newborn.

Charles Darwin recognised, back in 1872, that humans and animals show emotion through their gestures. More recently, in 1971, Albert Mehrabian published his book “Silent Messages”, suggesting that as little as 7 percent of communication relies on words. The rest depends on body language, gesture, facial expression and tone of voice. Although your baby has no real words until 12 to 18 months of age, he communicates constantly, practising many of the non-verbal skills that will smooth his path in life, as an effective communicator.

Early communication
Your newborn baby immediately communicates with you, through non-verbal crying. By the time he reaches 3 years of age, he talks in small sentences. As he makes that speedy language development journey, he combines developing motor skills with his growing intellect and social awareness to communicate. He interacts with you, his family and his widening circle of friends in any way he can find.

His first, hugely successful cries have you running towards him at top speed to feed, change or cuddle him. Every baby’s loud, shrill screams have an instant effect on his parents. Breast-feeding mothers find their milk flowing as soon as they hear them.

He notices your voice within days and soon turns towards you when you speak to him. Your words mean nothing to him at this stage but he notices whether your voice is loud of soft, angry or loving. He makes eye contact with you, learning the valuable lesson for life that non-verbal communication builds human relationships. His first social smile appears at around 3 months.

Your baby’s vocalisations begin to change. He coos with happiness and shouts with displeasure, but his first words remain a few months in the distance. In the meantime, he tries out different sounds, babbling happily in strings of nonsense sounds.

At around 6 to 9 months, he transfers objects from one hand to the other. He learns to wave “bye bye” and clap his hands. Parents sometimes like to introduce a few baby signs at this stage, such as simple signs for “eat”, “drink” and “more”. One or two small studies, described in Dr Marilyn Daniels’ “Dancing With Words”,suggest that babies who use signing show an increase in their measured IQs at the age of 8.

However, The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) website points out that little research into the long-term benefits of baby signing exists. ASHA suggests that the IQ difference between babies whose parents use signing and other babies may be due to genetic and environmental advantages from the babies’ parents.

The Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists in the UK advises that signing parents should always combine the signs with the spoken word.

Whether you teach specific signs to your baby or not, he recognises your non-verbal behaviour. He knows when you are anxious or stressed, and responds by becoming fractious. By the end of his first year, he may become anxious when you leave him, because he recognises your unique place in his life. He continues to use eye contact, tone of voice and gestures such as shaking his head to communicate with you. He may say his first word, and his non-verbal skills continue to develop during the rest of his early years.

“The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals”; Charles Darwin; 1872
“Silent Messages”; Albert Mehrabian; 1971
“Dancing With Words”; Dr Marilyn Daniels; 2001
“SLTs Say Baby Signing Programmes are Not Necessary for Most Children”; RCSLT press release; 27 October 2003
The ASHA Leader; “About Baby Signing”; Brenda Seal; 2010

Happy Talk

This Easter, I was pondering the things that make us happy and wondering, as ever, what real happiness is.

I took a peek at the newest addition to our family, now seven weeks old, and there was one answer, at least. There’s no doubt that a baby who’s just finished a feed, has a clean nappy and warm bed, not to mention plenty of cuddles, is in heaven.

So what happens to us as we get older? Why do we lose that fabulous feeling of wellbeing, of contentment and of just being happy in our own skin?

I can’t help thinking that the things we tell ourselves and our children may have a lot to do with it. Have you listened to adults talking to children? So often our conversation is full of ‘don’t.’

Don’t pull the cat’s tail. Don’t run into the road. Don’t talk with your mouth full.

It goes on throughout our lives. We’re always talking about the things we can’t do and the sad truth is that if there’s one thing that makes me want to do something, it’s being told I can’t.

I went to our local pet shop the other day. There was a notice on the fish tanks.

Don’t bang on the glass. Now, it hadn’t occurred to me that I would want to bang on the glass. Why would I? But when I read that, I could barely contain myself. Would it really hurt the fish? How about just a tiny tap? No-one would notice, after all.

Then I saw another notice, next to a pile of bags full of gravel.

Don’t climb on the gravel. I’m sure you get the picture. I suddenly knew exactly how it felt to be a child again, tantalised by suggestions of things I mustn’t do. I had to leave before I disgraced myself.

Telling us not to do things so often has the opposite effect. It can even be dangerous. Remember that classic instruction to anyone dangling at the end of a rope halfway up a cliff face: Don’t look down?

Wouldn’t it be great to turn all those negatives into positives? It’s not hard to do. We could change,

Don’t pull the cat’s tail into stroke his head gently. Don’t run into the road, could be see if you can keep inside the lines on the pavement. And don’t look down could be (much safer) look up to see how close the next handhold is.

So I’m setting myself a challenge today. No more negatives: only positives. I will avoid the words don’t at all costs.

I will tell my son to drive safely. I will point out to a child how much he will enjoy talking very, very quietly and I will tell myself to remember to buy the milk.

Perhaps you could join me in the challenge? Maybe when we get into the habit of being positive, we’ll find again some of that contentment we knew when we were babies. Even more importantly, maybe our happy talk will help our children to grow up to be happier people.

If you’d like to know more about happiness and communication, please visit or join my new Facebook group, Happy Talk.