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Words at Play: Fostering Conversation


Recent studies suggest that talking with children is a critical factor in a child's language development. Sadly, this doesn’t necessarily come about naturally. TV, computers, iPhones and other distractions often place parents and children in the same room but in different worlds. We have to make a special effort to talk to our children.

Luckily, there is a lot to talk about. Children enjoy discussing their everyday experiences. Just the other day I overheard a conversation between a 5-year-old boy and his dad in the locker room of a local pool. They rushed into the locker room and headed for the toilet. The dad said, "Good job telling me that you had to go before it was too late!" There was a pause, and then the son said, "It sure is a big one." The dad said, "Yes, it is." The son asked, "Do you think it will go down the toilet? The dad said, "Yes, they have super powerful toilets here." Then the boy asked, "Have you ever seen an oil rig?" "Only on TV," replied his dad. These are obviously a pair who enjoy communicating with each other. Even the most mundane conversations add to the richness of a child's verbal life.

Books can also spark rich conversations. A couple of months ago I recommend Harry the Dirty Dog to a friend's son. His dad got it for him and the next time I saw them, the boy told me, excitedly, "Harry runs away from his family, and gets so dirty that he becomes a black dog with white spots instead of a white dog with black spots." The world Harry lives in is very different from ours. In Harry's world stray dogs run around in packs. There are also steam rollers and coal cellars, things you don't often see these days. Books can open up all kinds of new topics for conversation.

When we talk with children about books, we can be guided by what interests the child. Some children enjoy discussing the pictures while others find the words more interesting. Certain books trigger memories and others can transport a child to an entirely different world. Sometimes a child just wants to sit in your lap and hear a book read from beginning to end, with no interruptions. That's fine, but if you read a book more than once, discussion becomes more likely.

Open-ended questions — ones that don't have a single word answer — encourage conversation. You can always point to a picture of a cow and ask, “What kind of animal is that?” A more interesting question might be, “Why do you think that cow is driving a tractor?” (Assuming of course that the cow is driving a tractor!)

Talking with your children when they are young will become a lifelong habit. When it’s time for those difficult teenage conversations, you’ll be a bit more prepared!

This article was originally published in Seven Days' monthly parenting magazine, Kids VT.