How Connected Play helped my child overcome competitiveness

How Connected Play helped my child overcome competitiveness


When my daughter Nika was 5 years old, she was getting more and more uptight about the winning and losing thing. She was becoming extremely competitive, in a very ungracious way – always wanting to win, being a sore loser and frankly a ‘sore winner’, too, quick to rub it in everyone’s face.

One day, quite spontaneously, her dad burst into a game which ended up being an inspired way to help her loosen up about this.

They were both playing Uno (the card game). Nika was doing an ugly, little ‘I win’ dance each time she won – full of tension and held-back feelings, I can see now. Then her dad won. He took off running through the house, yelling to everyone that he won!! She giggled and ran after him.

It’s the giggles that tell you you are on the right track, when it comes to Connected Play. If the kids are giggling, you know you are onto something, you are close to the emotional rub. Each peel of laughter is them letting go of a bit of tension on this subject.

The next round they played, daddy lost. Nika started doing her (even goofier) version of a victory-lap around the house… her dad followed her and started gleefully shouting ‘I lose! I lose! I lose!’. She – and all of us – thought the whole thing was hilarious. And now everyone wanted to lose (or win or just play a game through) to get to do a funnier-than-the-last-person’s victory or failure running dance. :)

And now, over two years later, I can report that not only was this little game (which got repeated a few times and kind of incorporated into our game playing, for a while) super fun for everyone but it also ushered in with it a new lighter attitude toward winning and losing. It helped bring a change in my daughter’s attitude in playing competitive games with others. 

In fact, since then, I have been amazed to observe – a few times, now – that not only can she win and lose more gracefully and be a ‘good sport’ about things but on occasions she has been positively, glowingly supportive of other kids when they were having trouble in this area.

For example, a kid once came round who was really tense around losing, in particular, and in fact started to cheat so that she could win. My daughter saw the other girl was cheating but had the maturity to ‘let her’ get away with it and essentially just smiled along, indulgently – without even calling her out on it. Overall, she has shifted in such a way that it is almost night and day and she can now – on a good day, at least – be visibly happy for others when they win. :)

So, yeah, if your kids are getting really stressed about winning and losing and you want to help them overcome this… I’d try some Connected Play first. When you see them getting uptight about this issue and if you are in a place where you can genuinely, warmly find a playful response to what is arising, go for it. Keep it fresh and light. Use this game or make up your own – just remember to follow the giggles. That is the path that will lead to success in helping kids release their tension around how hard it can be to lose and how important it can feel to WIN! Help them giggle those tensions away.

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Slow Parenting: eight simple steps to help our children be calmer

Everyone wants a smart child, a co-operative and respectful child but in the rush to fill their minds and set stern loving limits, sometimes it would seem – those of us living in Western countries especially – can forget to leave time for peace, for contemplation, for silence and healing solitude.

We complain our children are bouncing off walls and sometimes that comes down to genetic differences… but often these kids are just responding to the pace of life we immerse them in. They are running fast because their lives are fast, the games and TV shows they watch are fast, even the food they eat is fast – ‘cooked’ fast and eaten faster.

So, while you continue to nurture your kids’ intellectual potential and  support them in developing an inner moral code and even as you may or may not be taking them to church or otherwise feeding their soul… spare a thought for the importance of nothingness, of being okay with just being and feeling comfortable within one’s own skin.

Here are few a suggested starting points:

  1. 67- footprints on the beach copy IIIIf you want to have a calmer child, start by having a calm schedule and make sure you timetable-in free time for self-led play, ideally every day. Kids need time to process what is going on in the world around them. They are taking so much in.  Being kids, they get to grips with what is happening through play. It needs to be self-led to really unlock the full power of creativity and the potential within them, imo. Don’t get me wrong other types of play are crucial, too, such as with their peers, ‘special’ one-to-one time with a parent/caregiver, therapeutic play (aka laughter games and ‘PlayListening’) but pure, unsupervised self-initiated play is incredibly valuable, too, and I believe it is crucial in allowing kids to self-regulate their emotions. Make sure you make time for each of your kids to enjoy the pleasure of their own company and pursue whatever is interesting them at the moment, on their own.
  2. Time in nature is healing. Want a calmer kid? Help them spend as much time in nature  as possible. [Read this: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/03/how-nature-resets-our-minds-and-bodies/274455/. And I love this about the magical effect of nature and space in resolving sibling conflicts: http://auntannieschildcare.blogspot.com/2012/08/the-power-of-nature-fighting-kids.html%5D
  3. A relaxing environment, simple, spacious with few open-ended toys displayed in little scenes (rather than thrown in big bins) can also really invite longer, calmer periods of play, indoors. I have written more about that here… although I confess I need to really re-simplify my own living environment, too!
  4. Calming foods (slow/homecooked foods) also help – and reducing junk, sugar, hydrogenated fats, artificial colours and preservatives is part of that.  Make sure kids are well hydrated, too, and that they get lots of good fats as those are two important factors in soothing the nervous system. Here are a few suggestions of specifically calming foods: http://www.livestrong.com/article/287759-foods-to-calm-adhd-children/ (and at our house we love green smoothies which almost always have bananas AND spinach – two of the calming ingredients). Or check out this eye-opening first person account: http://www.ahaparenting.com/ask-the-doctor-1/diet-really-can-calm-some-out-of-control-kids.
  5. … and taking care of the body, generally, is important in creating the inner conditions for calm – for example by making sure kids get enough exercise and sleep every day!
  6. Silence also aids concentration and inner restfulness. Having only nature sounds or ‘working silence‘ surround your kid much of their day is very soothing. If you live in a city, it can be about NOT having the TV or radio on in the background ALL the time. Mellow classical/instrumental music without words can be relaxing sometimes, too (but silence is important other times, too, right?). And here is Janet Lansbury on the  importance of silence in learning to listen: http://www.janetlansbury.com/2011/03/10-secrets-to-raising-good-listeners/
  7. Freedom of expression… few things are more helpful to cultivating inner peace than to let all the psychic and emotional junk out. At times, what some kids need is a good listening to! It is amazing what feeling understood can do to help our kids be at ease with who they are and be able to play for long periods of time in harmony with themselves and others. Some of my ‘aha!’ moments on this topic: here. Much more on the clearing, cathartic effects of emotional release on kids here: http://superprotectivefactor.com/
  8. Keeping calm, yourself, and surrounding your kid with relaxed, joyful, empathic people models the way.

None of these are magical cures for ‘electric’ children but together they can help and at the very least should be, imo, the starting point for helping kids find their own inner calm… and if they are old enough, you can even start practicing a little meditation together :)

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Further reading:
BBC piece on the importance of being ‘bored’ 
– ‘Simplicity Parenting‘ by Kim John Payne
– ‘Last Child in the Woods‘ by  Richard Louv

Musings on Materialism, the Day After Christmas…

Whenever somebody asked my child what she wanted for Christmas she answered ‘a surprise’. I felt all glowey about this – not least because this response was not coached in any way, it came totally from her.Gauri and Anya opening prezzies

But now she has us scratching our heads, wondering how we can preserve this open-heartedness in her. How do we keep it from turning into the greed, materialism and acquisitiveness that so often comes with Christmas? She is (nearly, nearly) 3 now.

We plan to continue to focus on family, good food and the feeling of love and connection rather than on ‘things’. Will that be enough, I wonder?…

I can’t help but think that cultivating the ‘Christmas spirit’ of giving, gratitude and gracefulness is not about what we do one day a year, what we give her or don’t give her on the 25th of December, what we say when she opens a gift or how we respond to her reactions as she discovers what ‘santa’ brought her… I suspect it is our attitude toward having rather than being all year round, that counts. That is what shapes who she is and how she feels about herself and whether or not she thinks she needs stuff.

A friend of mine said once that she likes to give her kids whatever they want so that they grow up feeling abundant and that whatever they want is within their reach. She comes from kind of new-agey stock :)  (as do I, but we see this one differently…) I actually think it is the opposite. The more we cultivate contentedness and gratitude for what we already have the more ‘abundant’ we feel in our hearts and in our lives.

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How about you – what little or big things have you been doing to combat the ‘holidays = gifts’ and the ‘more, bigger, better’ mentality that surrounds our kids this time of year?

Fostering Self-Directed Play: ten tips to help pre-schoolers entertain themselves

After my last post on Nurturing Independence and Imagination: a Dance of Freedom and Reconnection Lucinda asks:

I don’t know how much of it is personality and how much is a reflection of my mothering, but from the get-go, I feel that my son has required a lot of attention and input and has a more difficult time playing on his own. It’s definitely been improving since he turned 2, but now that he is nearly 3, I still find that he requires almost-constant participation from me in all of his play (the rare exception being reading books, he will disappear and read books to himself for 20min at a time). Whether it be an art project or imaginary play or legos, he loses interest or just doesn’t want to do it unless I too am fully engaged. Any thoughts/tips on this? I don’t mind being his constant play companion, but sometimes I do have other needs and I do want to foster his independence.”

Dear Lucinda,

This is so clearly the question of a caring, involved and engaged mama… Thank you for sharing of yourself in this way, too. We all have times when we need to be able to get on with things and we hope our kid will not want to ‘help’ with absolutely everything all the time… And, yes, I do think personality – a kid’s nature – plays into it, for sure. Some kids are more dreamy and are off creating their own worlds, seemingly from the get-go. Others need a little more help. However, I will say, that all the RIE/low intervention parented kids I personally know tend to play well by themselves for long chunks of time, and though I haven’t seen any research on this personally, it does seems to be the experience of all those teaching and practicing these approaches, too. So it would appear ‘nurture’ has a fair chance of at least expanding most kids’ attention spans and helping them play and concentrate on something, on their own, for longer.

Here’s the thing, though, I am not perfect. I am still learning myself. And I am not an expert. I am a mom who likes reading and thinking and watching her kid and her friends’ kids at play. And I am willing to share what I have learned so far. Use only what resonates with you and serves your family.

Our aim here, then, is to help your child gain confidence in following and sticking with their own play impulses. To kick-start them into this new habit of sustaining independent play, you might need to put some extra energy into the system for a limited period of time (probably a few months – although it will get easier as you go). Of course, in the long run, the goal is to have them play by themselves more and more but to start with you can do things that will help them build the confidence and skill to play on their own and that will take some commitment from you. But you will be re-paid in both renewed closeness and increased focus and attention span.

Here are some of the ways we can support our kids to do that:

  1. Let your child pick the activity – he leads, you follow. Right now he is (clearly) not ready to just be left and for you to assume he can sustain the game on his own, so in this transition period you are going to do subtle things that encourage him to sustain an activity that he has started. But that is key. You mention art and crafts and legos… I am wondering, whose idea is it to play with those, usually? Was it yours or his? Adult-led activities will often need adults to carry them, too. So, your job to start with will be to observe him (as I am sure you already do) and follow him. Set a time, perhaps half an hour a day, in which you will intensively follow his lead in play. Anything he wants to play, you do it and once he has started it, you stay with him, pouring your enthusiasm into everything he does (not praise – we know that is not helpful – but genuine, heart-felt joy at the minutia of what he is coming up with, expressed through facial expressions and non-verbal cues as well as some choice, intrinsic-motivation-building words :)

    A Play Break

    A Play Break (Photo credit: emerille)

  2. Once he gets into something don’t interrupt. It is VERY easy for us adults to do. In fact, I see it all the time: a child finally gets into a groove and is doing something on their own for a minute and immediately an adult will step in with ways to ‘improve’ or replace what they are interested in: ‘look at that plane in the sky’, ‘why don’t you do this with that sand castle’, ‘why don’t you play with this, instead, it looks more fun’ – and hey presto you have pulled them off their simple but absorbing agenda and onto yours… Really, we need to make this a rule for all times, even outside this intensive half-hour, we have to learn to respect what they’re interested in by not interrupting to show (or worse still teach) him something ‘more interesting’. We all do it… and we could all benefit from doing it LESS. There are exceptions of course but your job, during this boot-camp phase is to REALLY, really tune into what turns him on, right now and follow that. Again you are helping strengthen his confidence in his inner compass. He knows what he wants to play, what he wants to explore – you are now showing him that you see that and think what is interesting to him is worth being interested in.  :)
  3. So,  in play, we enter our kids’ world – show him you ‘see’ this world he is imagining for and with you and that you believe in it. Wait to be invited in and take your cue from him as to what role he wants you to play in his game of choice.
  4. When in it, describe his world from his point of view. These are two really important points: first follow their gaze and actions to see what is important to them on a moment by moment basis – what is really interesting them in this toy/activity? Try and put yourself in their shoes and see it from their point of view. Secondly, put it into words. This ‘shared focus’ where you are talking about what they are thinking is huge. In a sense you are helping him build an inner dialogue about what he is doing (a practice he can continue without you, once you have helped him strengthen this muscle).
  5. Keep the environment simple. Waldorf educators have long been observing that the fewer toys you have the longer your kid will play with each one, by and large. If you find you have always a lot of toys about, consider starting a toy rotation where you remove and store some/most of the toys and leave out only the most current ones. If you pick ones he is not really into at the moment and remove those, he may not even notice or care but I bet he will be super excited to see some of them come back!
  6. Allow him to bow out of an activity whenever he wants to. Yes, sometimes he will flit from one activity to the next. That is okay. What you are primarily trying to develop is not long periods of playing the same thing… what you are trying to develop, really, is their ability to connect with their own desires and follow those freely, for as long as possible. Once that muscle is strengthened they can go for hours on end – but it comes from being natural and following their heart (even when it is acting like a summer-drunk butterfly).
  7. But likewise, allow him to stay with something for as long as he wants to (don’t judge it as too long in one game/song/pattern). Of course if you need to eat or if it is bedtime or the like, you need to interrupt. If so, do it sensitively, empathically as you would with any adult deeply engaged in something they love: give them fair notice (say a one-minute warning?), allow them to stop at a moment which is a natural pause, if possible, let them bring something of that play into the next phase of their day, if appropriate (e.g. let them bring a stuffed toy into the car… or a car into the bedroom) – and do let them negotiate appropriately around any of those (a courtesy you would also undoubtedly afford a grown-up)
  8. Switch off the TV (and the radio) – this is incredibly important. TV saps focus, it is constantly competing for our attention and often gets it. Background TV is the worst (especially for kids under about 2 – as they find it hard to distinguish background from foreground noise and it all becomes one big mish-mash of sensory overload). At least for that intensive half-hour where you are following his play-cues, switch off all background noise (well, not airplanes and traffic… but whatever you can) :p  More on the effect of TV on kids here. 
  9. Create emotional safety and freedom of (full) expression. This is SUPER important. Play is like a barometer for kids’ internal wellbeing. With my 2.5 year old I see that when she is stressed she ‘needs me’ practically all the time. When she is really relaxed and at ease within herself she plays independently for the longest periods. I observe that after a real, cathartic cry or rage is when she is at her most relaxed. It is like she has totally unburdened herself, she has emptied herself of all that emotional junk and now she is really FREE to play. You can learn more about that here, for example (with Hand in Hand Parenting – one of the leading lights in this understanding of how play and emotional expression reflect off each other and bring real learning and healing for children). I have also blogged about it here.
  10. Expect this process to take time and know that it may get ‘worse’ before it gets better, in other words, yes, you are going to have to invest time in going deeper into their world, for now but, you know, that might just become the high point of your day. And in the long-run you’ll be giving him skills that set him for a childhood, a life of knowing and following the rhythm of his own drum – giving him independence, creativity, self-regulation

But here is the thing, in many ways, you are re-training yourself – more than him. Most of us have developed habits which, though well meaning, actually do not serve our ultimate aims (of fostering kids who joyfully engage in self-directed play, for example). So, in a way this ‘boot camp’ is for you – so that if you have any of the habits that interrupt or weaken his play instincts, you can now ‘unlearn’ them.

As good as my kid is at entertaining herself, for her age… as soon as I do something interesting (in her eyes) she will abandon what she is doing to come and ‘help’ me. Doing the cooking is classic in this regard – and that is also a good thing (though the stuff of another post, no doubt). So, yeah, even trying our best, we will unwittingly interrupt them.

Plus, all kids go through phases in this regard, right? And still, even on a good day, as I have said before, my kid and my interactions are very much like a dance of independence and reconnection. She will play a little, then check in and gently demand interaction or ask to breastfeed… and then she is off again.

Boy playing with bubble wrap

Boy playing with bubble wrap (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a sense helping a child to become confident with self-direct play is much like helping them develop a healthy relationship with food. They need to eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full. You as a parent can get out of the way and help them recognise their own inner drives, in this case hunger and satiety, as well as build on their healthy appetites. Now, translate that to play. Let them recognise their own drives and desires when it comes to play, to trust them and follow them, to start what they want to start and stop when they are done with that game. It takes time and patience for them to really believe that they can lead in play – and that you trust them to create the best fun themselves.

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Finally, if you are in the mood for more reading, do check out one of the internet’s gurus on self-directed play, Janet Landsbury who rocks and has written about toddlers, here, for example:

But she has many great articles and she comes from this philosophy that has also inspired me so much: Magda Gerber’s RIE.

There are also lots of other awesome links sprinkled throughout the text. Enjoy those at your leisure.

Thank you again for reading and do come back with me with any more questions and I will help in whichever way I can (an invitation that goes out also to anyone reading this). With love, joy and thanks for sticking with me through such a long post,

Gauri

On nurturing independence and imagination: a dance of freedom and re-connection

One of the things I am most proud of in my short parenting career so far, is being able to step back and let my child lead in her own play. I trust her to get on and make-up her own fun. No wonder the RIE approach resonates so much for me! This is my own natural style: give children space, freedom and trust. Combine that with a good dose of genuine enthusiasm and joy for what they are doing (which comes naturally to most parents) and you’ve got what, in my view, is the best way to foster an independent, creative mind in a child that becomes, first and foremost, their own leader.

My friend Lucy says her kids are semi-feral. I love that description. And I think of how well it fits her kids, as they run around her leafy garden, creating fun adventures for themselves. We live in a flat so, on low-key days like today, my kid’s ‘free roaming’ is indoors. But we get out into nature as often as possible for lots of free play there, too.

Right now, my child is playing by herself in the living room. She has been amusing herself for literally hours (with the odd, short breastfeeding break). At the moment she is chatting with her cloth farm animals (from IKEA). Earlier she went to our room, closed the door and ‘read’ books to herself for half an hour or so. Bless her heart. She is 2 and a half.

On stay-at-home days like this, I essentially see what she is playing and go and join in every now and again, so that our day is a dance of connection and independence, coming together and separating – with some set pieces in the middle (some deliberate ‘special’ one-to-one time, meals, bed-time routine, etc). Play is her domain. She leads 90% of the time. I interject ideas every now and again – some of which are accepted and some which are not (hah!)

Her attention span is quite delicious. I see her doing her puzzle over and over with glee or singing songs in a circle around the room for 20 minutes – and sometimes much longer.

Honestly, I think in part this is just who she is, it is her temperament… but I pat myself on the back for at least not drawing her out of that, for helping her hold onto this. But I also feel I was pro-active from when she was very young in deliberately fostering her ability to self-start, to play uninterrupted and to build her attention span. You can read more about some of the things I was doing for that, here. I also try very hard not to clutter her world with toys and other gadgets that call at her and pull her out of her own, self-created world. The simpler the environment, the richer the imagination (as a rule of thumb). Nature is still the best play setting, but a nice, safe room with some simple toys and objects can be a great canvas on which a child can paint their waking dreams. [more on my approach to toys and a creativity boosting play environment, here]

I am an only child and remember doing this a lot myself. I was very good at entertaining myself – for hours. I would create an imaginary world and go live in it. Already I see that emerging for my little one. She has imaginary friends popping up, now, as well as frequently telling us who she ‘is’ (mostly Andy Z, as you’ll know by now). I am also extremely social. I loved playing with others, too, but the point was I was NEVER bored. I just made my own fun.

So, as a mom, now, I try and enter her imaginary world with respect. There is an old rule in improv comedy (so I am told) called ‘Agree and Add’. Essentially you work with whatever the last person just said and build on it to collaborate in creating a funny scenario. That is kind of how I approach her play, I ‘agree’ (meaning I see where she is at and accept that as our starting premise – ‘ahh, I see, this is your rocket ship going to Mars’) and ‘add’ occasionally (‘hey, look out that window, you can see the Earth getting smaller. Isn’t it amazing?!’… or whatever). The same goes with any game. If she is playing with shells and has been having fun with it for a good while but I feel she might like to take it a little further, I might suggest that they’d make some really good beds for her tiny dollies, then I step back and let her run with it in any direction she choses (or none at all, if it didn’t hit the mark). So she plays for half an hour or so, I connect with her, perhaps make some suggestions for a few minutes and off she goes again, re-fuelled and ready for another stint of solo playing. It doesn’t always go this smoothly but it is beautiful when it does.

Of course I love playing with my daughter, too, and engaging deeply for longer periods of time. That is one of my highest joys. But this ease at letting go and letting her play by herself (rather than feel the need to ‘stimulate her senses’ or what have you, 24/7) I think is one of the biggest investments in energy that I have made.

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How about you, are you comfortable allowing your young child to play by themselves or do you feel they are missing out if they are not actively engaged with you (or the TV or a ‘press here for entertainment’ type toy)? Are you afraid that they are missing out on valuable opportunities for learning and being challenged if they are left to engage in free play for ‘too long’? Or do you, like me, delight in seeing your toddler be totally comfortable with just creating and having their own fun, seemingly from thin air and for hours on end?

Bragging or sharing joy..?

Child 1

Child 1 (Photo credit: Tony Trần)

I once did a yoga class in the dark. My teacher used to always say, ‘yoga is not a competition, you only need to chart your progress against yourself: did you go an inch further this week than last week’?

I see parenting and our children’s progress the same way. There is no need to compare one child to another. Each is on their own unique, individual journey – one which is perfect for them. Is there a temptation even pressure to judge and compare, just to check they are doing ‘alright’? Sure… but it is so liberating in those moments in which we can totally transcend that.

A friend tells me: “my kid started walking at seven months” or “my child’s vocab has been burgeoning in the last few weeks.” Personally, I really appreciate and enjoy when people share facts like this with me about their children. They are letting me in a little to their lives and I love that. I feel like one of the family. And now, with toddlers, I often share deep belly-laughs for the antics of other cute, smart kids in our circle. I try only to measure each child’s progress (if at all) against their achievements when I had last seen them. When you view it like that, you become totally detached from the toddler-rat-race and able to rejoice in each child’s accomplishments.

In fact, in a way (as I have said before), I view them all as my children. What I mean by that is that I try and look through my mama-eyes at all kids and find the empathy, enjoyment and pride for all of them.

And I do not consider it bragging to tell me what a child has achieved… unless there is a value judgement that goes with it, some implication that therefore they are better than other children. Indeed, I think there is a fundamental difference between bragging and reporting facts. Bragging of the ‘this child is better than that one’ kind is ugly and stinks a little, too. But observing with loving interest what your child has been doing is not bragging, in my opinion. It is joy, shared. It is a fine line, I grant you. But there is a trend, nowadays, to feel you cannot talk about your child’s successes to others, lest it be seen as a kind of vanity. I guess, I am just appealing for a middle ground, balance. Yes, keep your value judgements (of good/bad, better/worse) to yourself. If you need to share them because they are burning a hole in you, keep them in the immediate family, I reckon. But do not hold back from sharing with me your factual observations of what your child has done. Do share with me, also, your feelings about this, please (sadness, joy, shame, hope, anger, pride, etc. are all, effectively, another kind of fact – emotional truth). Let’s leave it at that, though: fact and truth. Then we can all rejoice in the achievements and progress of all life’s children.

Twenty easy-peasy tips for supporting language development

Happy Children Playing Kids

Happy Children Playing Kids (Photo credit: epSos.de)

When Nica was only a baby, I was nervous about not knowing how to talk to her to help her develop language. Does that sound odd? I don’t know where I got that from, honestly. Lots of people will say ‘oh, they’ll learn sooner or later, one way or another, just from being around people talking’… While that is true, I have also found, from all the research I did to allay those initial first-time-mom nerves, that there are attitudes, approaches and techniques that some parents develop naturally (while others may need to learn them) that can make a difference to how much and how fast children learn language. Each child is unique and even applying this ‘program’ equally to all children would not of course ensure they were all speaking in full sentences by the age of one… but it is about maximising their potential for acquiring new language.

Afterall, not all households are equal in the way that children are exposed to language. For example…

  • Is there continual background noise from TV or radio or long periods of silence in which to explore making sounds? Do adults mostly talk to each other over the child or do they involve the child and talk directly to them?
  • And if they are talking directly to the child are they asking incessant, ‘testing’ questions or are they putting words to what he sees?
  • For that matter, are they trying to shift the kids onto their adult view point or are they entering the child’s world and speaking about what the child sees from their eye-level and about what is interesting to them?
  • Do grown-ups get down and talk to children eye-to-eye or shout at them from across the room and then get mad if the kid doesn’t immediately follow their ‘order’?
  • Is there one language in the household or two (or more) and how much do they overlap by?
  • Is the baby treated like a package to be moved here or there or are they treated with respect and like they understand so much, from day one?…

Yes, there are many, many variables which means there are things that work better and things that are less helpful when it comes to a child picking up language.

As I say, I was nervous, so I read a lot (that is what I do, when I feel adrift). So, now, I want to share with you all some of the things I learned on that journey of how to tune in and help our children develop their language skills to the best of their ability and in their own time – without ever pushing, testing or putting any pressure on them to know any more than they feel enthused to learn for themselves. We are very much following their lead, here, but doing it from an informed point of view, rather than just hoping for the best.

Here are my top tips for talking to the zero to two year old set:

  1. Turn off the TV. Even if you are a hard-core tele-addict (which honestly I can empathise with), try and turn off the TV even if for only 30 minutes a day – but more is better. Babies are unable to distinguish background from foreground sound. Any background noise seriously messes up their chances of focussing on the sounds coming out of your mouth… or the toy they are banging on, or even the sounds they themselves are uttering. They need to be able to really pick apart which sounds they are creating, what is doing what, which sound is coming from whose mouth etc. This helps them build their first understanding of cause and effect as well as help them begin to build associations between words and objects or people. The more clearly they can hear you, the faster they can begin to learn. So, give it a go: turn off the TV, especially before your kids are two.
  2. Carve out half an hour a day of one-to-one time with each child:  You are dedicating this half an hour a day to connect and communicate with your child – is this not what being a parent is all about? The idea is that you let them lead the exploration and play, completely, in this time. And, of course, make sure there is no background noise or interruptions. It can feel hard, to begin with, to just ‘be’, with no props, just you watching and following your kid’s lead in play but the pay-off is immense in terms of closeness, understanding and language development. Ideally you are aiming for half an hour per day with each child – if you can’t do that, do as close to that as you can: 15 minutes with each child/a day or 30 minutes with one kid one day, 30 minutes with another the next. The important thing is that you have one-to-one time where all the language is for them. Here is my first post on this practice and the research that led to it.
  3. Create shared focus: apart from the no TV rule, this is the single most important tip I ever received about supporting emerging language skills: talk about what they are interested in, at the time they are interested in it. Children are far more likely to remember a word if it is about something they are focussed on – this is proven. In the case of babies (and this applies to toddlers, too, really) the best way to create shared focus is for you to jump onto their wavelength. Don’t try and pull them to yours (“look at that birdie”; “play with this toy, this way”), all the time. Try and use this as time to get to know your child and what fascinates them and holds their attention. And then speak about what they are engaged with, or in other words…
  4. ‘Sportscast’. Narrate (from the child’s view point) what they are seeing, touching, smelling, hitting, etc. – especially for that half-hour a day but also at other opportune moments in the day. This is a version of what Magda Gerber, author and founder of RIE (Resources for Infant Educators), calls ‘sportscasting’. It works wonders not only for helping children interface with the world but later, as they grow older, with other children, too, even averting and disarming all manner of childish spats. But at the tender ages when language is first developing (say between 9 and 15 months) the primary purpose of narrating a child’s activities back to them, in my view, is to give them words for that which they are experiencing. And, as I said above, children learn the most when it is something they are actively engaged in (rather than something we want to teach them). It is amazing how much a child’s first words can reveal to us about what their priorities are. My kid’s first signs (which came before spoken words) were all about things which she loved, like ducks, ceiling fans and lights – hah!
  5. Scaffold: my mum, the language teacher, tells me this is a term coined by Vygotsky. If I understand it correctly, it is basically a fancy word for continuing to speak to your kid about one level ahead of where they are at, if that makes sense. You provide the ‘scaffolding’ for them to learn at their own pace. You don’t speak to them in long, rushed, complicated sentences that are way above their ‘pay grade’; nor do you speak about stuff that is not in the room and expect them to understand (not when they are babies, at least); you also don’t need to teach them with flash cards… nor, to go to the other extreme, do you need to either talk down to them or, worse still, talk to them like Elmo or like you yourself are a toddler who doesn’t quite grasp grammar yet (‘daddy take ba-ba’?!). Talk to babies in real sentences with real words but…
  6. Keep it simple. Make sure to enunciate and speak clearly. Not all the time, in some uber-self-conscious kind of a way. They need to hear natural speech flow with its inflections, emphasis, tone, etc… but when you are speaking directly to them, it can be helpful to think of babies almost like little foreigners to whom you do the respect of speaking with easy, ‘beginner’ words, with clarity and enthusiasm. But mix it up and pop some more advanced words in there every now and again – they may surprise you and repeat a five syllable word right back at you.
  7. Have fun. Nothing squelches learning faster than being ‘taught’ or worse still, being ‘corrected’. That just presses us back into our emotional shells where we want to hide until we know we will be safe rather than humiliated or made to feel small. So for the sake of your child’s learning but also for the health of your relationship and, perhaps more importantly, just for your own enjoyment as a family, keep it light, joyful and playful.
  8. Learn and share basic sign languageI have blogged much about this before, but essentially, babies are able to communicate using their hands months before they are able to do so with sound. This is because it only takes a few muscles to shape your hand into a sign whereas speaking involves coordinating your breathing, your vocal chords, your mouth shape, your tongue position – all together. It is no wonder it takes a while to master. Children as young as six months can make their first signs. It gives you a real window of insight into a child’s mind, what they notice, what they are interested in but most importantly it gives them an avenue to begin to express to you all that is inside them, from basic needs like ‘milk’ or ‘potty’ to their wonder of the world (‘cat’!!). Research has also shown that babies who are taught to sign actually benefit from a lasting boost to not only their language skills but also their IQ so that at “8 years, those who had used sign language as babies scored an average of 12 points higher in IQ on the WISC-III than their non-signing peers.”
  9. Be responsive: when your baby coos, coo back; when they ga-ga, ga-ga right back at them. This is the first lesson in communication: that we listen and respond, that we take turns, that we talk to each other – this is all valuable information that babies use as foundation for learning how to talk.
  10. Be positive. As they get older and start to use real words, make sure to notice and emphasise what they are getting right. In fact, it is a helpful rule of thumb to respond to most attempts at labelling something by saying ‘Yes‘. They say ‘bid’ you say ‘yes, it is a bird’. This helps build their confidence that, first and foremost, you did understand what they were trying to communicate. Then any ‘correction’ is easier to receive, too, right and kind of seamless. I call it ‘auto-correct’:
  11. Aut0-correct. If they make a mistake no need to make a big song and dance about it, afterall they are only little and, frankly, doing an AMAZING job at picking up language from scratch at an alarming rate, I am sure. So instead of saying ‘no, it is not a do-d0, it is a dog, can you say DOG?’, try simply repeating back to the child what they said but using ‘auto-correct’ (like a kind of auto-tune but for words – lol). They say ‘it is a do-do’, you say, ‘yes, it is a dog’ (correction made and heard. No fuss.)
  12. Practice expansion. ‘Expansion’ in this context, is when you gently, lovingly, seamlessly expand on what your child has just said – this is a part of scaffolding, really. You repeat what they said back to them but add onto it, for example they say ‘ball’ you say, “Yes, it is a red ball” – you expanded on what they said emphasising one word addition to what they said. As they get older and bolder you can get fancy with this but the basics of ‘expansion’ is just about agreeing and adding to what they are saying in very small increments so that they are anchored in a word they do know and can add another one on, in the right place, with your help.
  13. Repeat, repeat, repeat. If there is a new object or word you are noticing they are interested in, repeat it in different contexts. ‘Ah, you see the crane. It is a big crane, isn’t it? Shall we go take a closer look at that blue crane?’, etc…
  14. Make sound effects: kids adore them. A love of language and communication starts often with a love of sounds, of exchanging them backward and forward between mama and baby (or papa or granny or… and baby). It doesn’t need to be about words, animal sounds, the car vrooooooming by, the prellllllllll sound you make when you pick baby up and the ‘ping’ of the toaster popping (repeated by daddy for fun) can all become little ‘word games’ that delight your little listener.
  15. Read or recite lots of fun little nursery rhymes – kids enjoy them and the ability to recognise and create rhymes is an important milestone in a child’s language development that shows how they are grasping and manipulating sounds. Kids especially like the ones with accompanying actions like ‘pat-a-cake’ or ‘ring around the roses’.
  16. Read simple books with lots of repetition to build word-familiarity. (but don’t worry, they’ll make sure you really get the ‘repetition’ part of this tip.)
  17. Sing – singing is another fun way to practice new words, often with rhyming, too. And because of the rhythm, it can make it easier to memorise.
  18. Tell stories. I am a huge fan of story telling for kids. The little ones especially like stories about themselves, either real or imagined (as long as they are the protagonists). Auto-biographical stories like this actually help integrate the right and the left hemispheres of the brain as well as to provide narrative for events of emotional significance in a child’s life. The book ‘The Whole Brain Child’ by Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson really goes into the power of story telling as a technique not only for locking-in vocabulary but also for developing memory (exercising it like a muscle, really) – as well as for processing and integrating difficult or emotional events (such as a car accident, for example – although I feel that is food for another post). I also LOVE this post by Jennifer of Hybrid Rasta Mama on the power of story telling for young children. I am convinced our daily ritual of a bedtime story has really helped my daughter remember words for the things and people she sees each day in a way she would not otherwise do.
  19. Get down to their level, engage in eye contact and let them read your lips: this is such a simple tip and yet it can yield great benefits. And it is all about respect, too – you are showing them you care and respect them enough to make the effort to come to where they are and look them in the eye while you talk to them. Who doesn’t feel appreciated when they are engaged with, fully? Plus kids can learn a lot from simply mimicking the shapes you make with your mouth as you talk.
  20. Listen. When a kid talks, pay attention. If possible, ‘listen with your eyes’ as we say in our family. Demonstrate that you are really engaged in what they are saying by focussing on them with all your energy for a moment (even if to say, ‘I need to give the cooking my full attention right now, but you are really important to me and I want to hear what you have to say, so as soon as I am done here, it will be your turn and I will give you my full attention’)…
Put it together and what do you get? An awareness and enjoyment of language exploration with your kid, that is non-stop, along with half an hour a day of dedicated one-on-one connection and communication time, free of distractions, that is all about following your child’s lead and talking about the things (toys, animals, movements) that catch their eye and that are interesting to them. You really learn a lot about your child doing this and as a result both of you feel more and more in tune. It is also proven to boost not only their language skills but their IQ, too – in the long run. Why not give this approach a try?
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See also

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Please note: I am neither a childcare professional nor a speech therapist. I am a mom and the above is my opinion only and is not a substitute for professional advice. If you suspect your child has any language delays you should speak to your doctor or seek the help of a specialist that can help your child overcome any potential or actual issues.

With love,

~Gauri