San Mateo, California,Child

Tech can make your conversations with kids way more effective

January 21, 2017
in Kids

In a classroom at a transitional housing program in San Mateo, California, Brianna is talking about her 2-year-old daughter, Hope. She’s having trouble getting Hope to talk to her—but the toddler is perfectly happy to converse with the television while she watches Little Einstein. Hope is in the classroom, too. So are five other parents, and a few more young kids. As Brianna talks, Hope bangs a spoon on a table. She puts her face close to two-month-old Javier, touching his black hair and trying to hand him a toy. Joanna, a facilitator from the San Mateo library system who leads the class, gently reminds Brianna to follow her daughter’s lead in conversations—and try to think about reading books as an activity instead of watching television. Joanna and the other librarians leading the class take care to point out the places where parents are succeeding in engaging their tots, and encourage them to think about how to do more of that. Thick, glossy handbooks are on the tables, written half in Spanish and half in English. Together, the parents watch a video that reminds us to follow our child’s lead in games and songs. It’s a class for parents who want to read, sing, and play with their kids more—not to keep them amused and occupied, but to encourage the best possible cognitive development. The facilitators hand each participant a paper report outlining weekly progress speaking with their child. Each week, the families record all their conversations for an entire day. After turning in the recorder, they receive information on how many words the child heard, how many words the child spoke, and the minutes of electronic media the kid consumed. One mother coos: “Look, I got a star!” A dad looks disappointed when he sees the amount of time his child has been watching a screen. “I feel so bad! I just give her the iPad,” he says. I look down at my own paper and start to wonder about the bar representing my 7 p.m. story time with my 3-year-old. Long before the first dada, a baby is soaking up language and developing skills for rudimentary conversation, and for decades scientists have studied the word soup in which babies swim. A breakthrough came in 1995, when two pioneering researchers from the University of Kansas—Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley—found that the more families talked to their babies and toddlers, the more likely they excelled academically later in life. Some 85 percent of brain development happens in those first three years of life. Children who hear more words can process language faster in school, so they are more successful with academics. By the age of five, children from the most verbal families have processed at least 30 million more words than kids from the least verbal families. It’s called the “word gap.” When parents talk to their children only a little, the researchers found, most of that language is devoted to the business...

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