When you think of learning and language, you might think of a classroom setting or a college setting. You might picture a teacher or professor lecturing. You may remember how you learned English in grade school with diagrams for the sentence structure or how you learned a foreign language. For children, especially with hearing loss, this is not what language learning encompasses. Instead, just envision PLAY.
Many people see children in Birth to Three programs or Early Childhood playing and say, "Uh, excuse me, but what are you doing? I want my child to learn. Don’t you need a therapy chair or a lesson planned out?" They might even say, "How are you going to teach my child language? All you are doing is playing!!" They are half right. PLAY is how children learn. Children experience, touch, see, hear, smell, and taste the world around them. They are given opportunities to see or hear a word, learn a concrete representation, find the beat of a word, incorporate it into an activity, and make it their own.
Remember when you were little and you wanted your mom to read the same book over and over and over again? That was not a secret ploy to drive your parents crazy! It was a way that your brain could make sense of language. Repetition in a book over and over helps a child's brain map the information and give it meaning. If we sign or read aloud a book over and over, then the child becomes familiar with that language and can attach meaning. If a child hears a word or sees a sign for a word once or twice, chances are there will not be much meaning attached to it. Children like to touch and feel, so holding an object in their hand and experiencing it gives them a way to give meaning to a word.
For example: I read "The Hungry Caterpillar" by Eric Carle. I show the pictures, I use manipulates of the caterpillar, the egg, the leaf, the things he eats, and the butterfly. These words become something concrete for the child. I have them hold it, say it, sign it and I even have them put the story together using these items. Children may do an art activity related to the foods in the book, eat some foods for snack, and do a music activity incorporating slow caterpillar like movements and fast fluttering of a butterfly.
Take time this weekend to turn off your "grown up" brain and think back to your child brain. Roll your sleeves up, get out some paint, paint a picture, dig in the dirt- just be a kid with your kid. You will be amazed at how much language flows from you. If your child signs and you don't know all those signs don’t worry. Just talk to your child. Be with your child. Sign when you can. Give your child opportunities to talk and grow and experience and learn.
Please share your thoughts and let me know how your weekend goes! If you are in the Milwwaukee area, we are having a Family Fun Day with lots of playing on Sat May 19 10-12. Check it out at www.communicationconnections.org. Happy playing :)
Allison Schley has been in the field of deaf and hard of hearing education for 20 years. She founded a nonprofit for families with hearing loss. She most recently wrote a children's book, entitled Forever Friends. This book shows the how a deaf dog and deaf boy teach the world that all kids are good and being deaf is okay.