We’ve heard frequently in the child development news and on social media that back-and-forth communication with the zero to three crowd is extremely important for brain development and for school readiness. We used to think that the number of words we used with babies and toddlers mattered most to their brain and language development, but now we know better: that it’s conversation with our little ones that matters more than just reading aloud to them or “talking at” them each day. The babies and toddlers that experience language in a continuous, flowing format of “I say something, then you say something, then I say something, etc.” is the key for stimulating a child’s brain, boosting language development and getting a child ready for school by age 3.
One might wonder why conversations matter so much. If a child is read to or spoken to every day many times a day, why isn’t that enough? The reason is that babies and toddlers are not simply meant to words that they will eventually say themselves. Their brains are not file cabinets in which “food words” are stored “here” and “animal words” are stored “over there,” so that when someone asks “What’s that?,” they can label the picture or the object easily by saying “apple” or “cow.” Their brains are built to function as super-highways of connections and pathways that help them understand and use language they have stored successfully in personal relationships and in the school setting in countless ways. If words are not learned in a context or in relationship to other people, places and things, learning and language understanding and use will always be a challenge for a child.
If we are to have conversations with babies and toddlers, we first must build and nurture relationships with them. As adults, we only learn so much from hearing a lecture or reading a book about a topic. But, when we sit down and have multiple conversations with someone who knows well what we are trying to learn, our learning will be much deeper because the words are heard within the context of the relationship. We humans, adults as well as babies and toddlers, learn much more about our world when we are engaged with people because there is emotion involved. If we have the chance to engage with someone over a topic and the experience is positive, emotion enters the picture and this emotion aids learning. On the other hand, if the experience brings about negative emotions, such as fear or anger, learning is hampered.
In these verbal exchanges within a conversation and relationship, babies and toddlers learn other crucial skills that are important for school readiness and success. Beyond learning words, they learn to coordinate their social skills, much like they learn to coordinate their muscles to crawl or run. They learn how to talk about and reference the emotions of people in their lives and in books that are read aloud to them. Babies and toddlers also learn to think flexibly, to use declarative language and memory to imitate others, and to process information in terms of relationships between people, places and objects. Conversing with others also allows babies and toddlers to learn to solve problems that lack clear-cut solutions by using past experiences and context to help them do so. That is, they learn to see possibilities based on past experiences. These examples of babies’ and toddlers’ social thinking are all learned in the context of a relationship with parents, caregivers, siblings and others around them.
So, the next time you use your words and take a turn with a baby or toddler, remember that you are not just building language skills, but you are also building social thinking skills that will support school readiness and success as well as life success!