Enriching tiny minds

By: Kristyne E. Demske, Cari DeLamielleure-Scott | C&G Newspapers | Published July 16, 2014

 Little ones play in tunnels, on mats and with blocks, puzzles and other toys after First Stop for Tots at the St. Clair Shores Public Library in 2012.

Little ones play in tunnels, on mats and with blocks, puzzles and other toys after First Stop for Tots at the St. Clair Shores Public Library in 2012.

File photo by Deb Jacques

METRO DETROIT — Learning doesn’t have to start at the first day of school.

Experts say it should start much earlier, and there are a variety of resources parents can use to spark enrichment in toddlers, especially in areas of literacy and music. 

Introducing languages is a way to enrich children from birth. Languages should be introduced to children immediately, and the “prime time” for children to pick up languages is during early childhood — birth to 6 years — according to Jodie Parsons, a speech pathologist with Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital who works in pediatrics.

Brain development, she said, is geared for language development during the years kids are “sponges” and “soaking it all in,” Parsons said.  Language imparts benefits other than speech, as well, including gesturing, pointing and facial expressions, she added.

“That’s what they’re learning in those early years, and their brains are equipped to do that. Once we get beyond that … they’re going to have a much harder time learning those skills (when) they’re out of the prime years for development,” Parsons said.

Some of the best resources parents can use to immerse little ones in languages is to have them listen to songs that are familiar and age-appropriate. If parents are looking to introduce a second language, playing songs or cartoons in a second language is a good way to begin teaching languages, Parson explained.

“The best exposure is going to be the experience,” she said, adding that if parents want their child to be bilingual but the parents do not speak a second language themselves, placing a toddler in a bilingual daycare or preschool is the next best step.

As children learn language, what they are really doing is understanding the structure. If a child is hearing a second language from someone not fluent, it can be difficult for the child to learn the rules of the language, Parsons said.

Parsons has had some experience working with families that speak three languages — each parent’s native tongue and English — and some parents have reported, she said, that their kids are late talkers. Once they start speaking, however, the child speaks in two or three languages. Initially, she said, they are trying to sort out and understand the rules of each language.

Even as toddlers learn English, parents should use a variety of vocabulary words and speak in full-length sentences with kids, avoiding “baby talk.” Research has shown that little ones with lower socioeconomic status are introduced to fewer words, decreasing their vocabulary, Parsons said.  

Local libraries offer great resources to get little ones engaged in learning and the written word. In St. Clair Shores, the library has early literacy kits available for checkout. Consisting of a cloth bag with a book inside and a manipulative, like a puppet or a game that goes with it, the kits are a way for the parent and child to interact while reading the story together.

“Especially at the toddler age, they’re not going to understand everything, but if you’re interacting with the child while you’re reading the story, they’ll see that reading is something fun,” said Becky DeLiso, a children’s librarian at the St. Clair Shores Public Library.

Another way to teach children is through music. DeLiso said they have plenty of CDs that include nursery rhymes and also teach different types of dance and movement with the songs.

That’s something they use during First Stop for Tots, a free year-round program for children up to 4 years old at the library.

“The great thing about the First Stop program is you’re doing a lot of stuff with the kids. They’re watching you, and they’re learning,” she said.

The program incorporates rhymes, songs, stories and other activities into a half-hour weekly program for the children. DeLiso said parents have said their children have unexpectedly learned skills from the program without even realizing it.

“When we do the hokey pokey, (the parent) didn’t realize that the hokey pokey was teaching her child left and right,” DeLiso said. “You have these activity songs that are teaching them things. They’re having fun while they’re doing it because they’re dancing.”

The storytime aspect also helps hone children’s listening skills and “stimulates their brain, even though they’re not realizing it.”

Even very small children will benefit from the stimulation and interaction with others, which ends with a playtime when the children can explore blocks, puzzles, other toys and more books.

“That’s probably another thing that’s very beneficial at that age, especially if they’re an only child,” she said. “This is the kind of program that allows them to have interaction with other children.”

First Stop for Tots is held at the St. Clair Shores Public Library, 22500 11 Mile Road, every Wednesday and Thursday at 10 a.m. For more information, visit scslibrary.org.