Depending on your educational philosophy, most would agree that babies and toddlers require very little to no formal homeschooling instruction. Experiencing life, being encouraged to explore their surroundings, and enabling them to observe or participate in day to day activities such as cooking or laundry is often sufficient. As little ones transition from baby to toddler; however, many will start to exhibit a strong desire to interact and communicate. Learning to communicate when you don’t have a lot of words at your disposal can be frustrating for both little ones and family members. In our home, teaching our toddler some basic American Sign Language (ASL) has greatly increased meaningful interactions and provided a great deal of enjoyment for us all.
The use of American Sign Language with babies and toddlers is gaining in popularity and there are several resources available for helping babies learn sign language. Most experts recommend starting the use of sign language once baby has some control over his/her hands and can wave and clap; typically between the ages of 6 to 8 months. Initial signs such as “eat”, “drink”,” milk”, or “more” are easily incorporated into a daily routine and the more baby sees the signs the more likely he/she is to start using them. Most babies will begin showing a response to learning signs within two months.
There is a fair amount of research indicating that the use of sign language can improve language skills, future school performance, and reduce fussiness. I was skeptical at first, but the look of joy on my little one’s face when she was able to successfully communicate to us that she wanted her milk was priceless. The smile she gave us when we handed her exactly what she asked for was an amazing experience! She now knows and uses ten signs very well and is continuing to learn additional words. Currently, she knows “milk”, “more”, “food”, “drink”, “bird”, “bear”, “all done”, “go”, “shoes”, and “car”. Learning the signs has also helped her with starting to use words as she associates the signs with the appropriate objects in real life and in books. Her current favorite sign is “bird” and it’s incredible to watch her point to a picture in a book, make the sign for bird, and then point to a bird out the window and make the connection that they are all the same.
I don’t have a personal vested interest in supporting any one program or approach for teaching little ones sign language, but I can certainly share the resources we used. I am a strong proponent of limiting screen time for youngsters, but was very impressed with how quickly the use of the sign language videos created just for children were able to reinforce the signs we had been working with our 15 month old to learn. The video we used was available through our DVD rental subscription with Netflix and was called “My Baby Can Talk – First Signs“. One of the largest benefits to using this program was that the video shows a toddler demonstrating the sign language. When toddlers vocalize a word, the sound is often an approximation of the exact word an adult would use, similarly the toddler version of a signed word is often slightly different. The examples of the toddler signing gave us a better ability to recognize when our toddler was offering a sign.
Most of the programs utilize American Sign Language, but some of the materials designed specifically for babies will modify more complex signs to make them easier for little ones. Two common examples are “help” and “all done.” The signing of the word “help” requires the use of both hands in opposing movements, which can be difficult for youngsters, so a modified version where both hands are used to pat the chest is used. “All done” is often modified from the ASL version to a simplified less coordinated motion, but we found our youngster was able to offer a close enough approximation of this sign for us to recognize the ASL version. A free web site we used to look up specific signs in which we had an interest was “Signing Savvy.” A fabulous web site to review more of the benefits of using sign language that also includes a comprehensive baby sign language program is “Baby Sign Language.”
If you have little ones, I would strongly encourage you to consider the use of sign language. Sign language has been a fantastic tool in our home for improving communication with our toddler and a very enjoyable first learning experience. It’s been an amazing way to start teaching my little one about out world and a great first opportunity for me to be a homeschool teacher as well as a parent!
Have you used sign language with your baby/toddler? Do you have a favorite resource for teaching sign language?