Wired for Learning Part 2: The Language Tennis Game

This is the second of a series of three special blog posts that look at how a young child’s brain is “wired” to learn – catch up on the first post here. Join me as we share exciting new findings and ways we can support our children’s extraordinary brain development. 

Our world today is changing more rapidly than ever – think about how far technology has come just within our lifetime! Twenty years ago, the Internet was a futuristic concept. Mobile phones were things you saw in sci-fi movies or The Jetsons cartoons. Can you believe the first touch tablet launched only three years ago? Today, these everyday smart devices put information from around the world at our fingertips at all times. How does this high-tech environment affect our children’s development?

Truthfully, it can have a major impact. Consider: the first five years of life is a time of remarkable brain growth. Synapses, or connections between neurons, form more rapidly than at any other time in life. These connections occur when a child has new and repeated experiences, which are determined by the sights, touches, tastes and smells a child takes in from his environment. This sensory input allows him to construct an understanding of how things work and how people act in the world. So it should come as no surprise that a child’s environment can greatly influence how he develops and what he learns.

Language Learning
Language development, in particular, is strongly influenced by a child’s environment. Learning language does not occur as naturally to children as learning to roll over, crawl or walk. Helping children learn language to its fullest extent requires a loving, stimulating environment where parents and caregivers talk to children frequently and deliberately pair words with objects and actions to create meaning.

A key part of language learning occurs in “conversations” with our children. After a baby listens to people around her talking for a few months, she begins to respond with her own rendition of those sounds, starting with coos, babbles, screeches or shrieks. Have you ever noticed the way your baby reacts when you look in her eyes and reply to her sounds in a calm, friendly way? Her eyes light up, she might smile, and she will usually repeat her jabbers with even greater enthusiasm.

Serve and Return
Dr. Jack Shonkoff of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University calls this back-and-forth interaction “serve and return.” As we “serve” words, children “return” sounds. If we in turn respond supportively with a statement or question, the child “answers” and the “conversation” continues. Before we realize, the child is beginning to speak intelligibly and meaningfully – first with syllables and single words, then with phrases and complete sentences.

The importance of speaking with and listening to children does not diminish as they grow older. Even though children need time each day to play, explore, make decisions and solve problems on their own, they still need meaningful, face-to-face interactions with adults to develop advanced language skills.

Note my emphasis on meaningful interactions with adults. It may be tempting to rely on technology to teach and entertain our children, but research shows that children do not experience the same type of language learning from television, computers and mobile devices as they do from talking to us.

The Tennis Game
No screen can “serve and return.” Children may be able to absorb a certain amount of information from a screen, but the interaction is passive and does not stimulate the language area of the brain in the same way that conversing with a person does.

Think of a child’s involvement with technology like a tennis practice session. You start by serving the tennis ball across the net and then position for the return, but each time your opponent drives the ball into the net. If this happens over and over, your growth as a tennis player is stifled. Your skills will develop faster if you’re able to volley with your opponent for extended periods of time. This is why the American Academy of Pediatrics discourages screen time for children under the age of 2.

So take time throughout the day to talk with your child as much as possible. Your little one will reap great benefits not only in learning language, but also in developing social and emotional confidence. To learn more about how to “serve and return” with your child, check out this video.

Be on the lookout for part 3 of this series, which will provide tips on how we can use this knowledge to grow children’s language and literacy skills. 

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