For kids to really learn, we need to respond to them rather than just talk or project information at them. Your responses to them are powerful, even when they’re infants that may not seem to be responding or learning as quickly as you realize.
In NurtureShock, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman discuss studies on the sounds that infants learn and their ability to learn language. Studies by Tamis-LeMonda highlight the importance of the parental figure responding when a child spoke or acted. It’s the responsiveness of the parent that encourages learning, not just the baby hearing a lot of words or vocabulary; just speaking to them or having “educational” videos on won’t initiate a learning process.
When we keep in mind that engagement is a 2-way street, we may realize some opportunities that we are passing up perhaps without realizing it, because it’s habit, or just because we’re tired. When riding in the car, for instance, are we speaking with our children? If it’s been a long day and I’ve driving my daughter home, it can be very easy to just have music going on the radio. But, even if we’re just listening to music, we can chime in with questions about the child’s day, what we see, etc. In the mornings in particular, I drive my daughter to daycare and am listening to NPR news on the radio. That creates a great opportunity for talking with her about what we’re hearing. She is young, and certainly a lot of it is beyond her, but she’s gotten to the point that she’s asking questions in a wonderful way. Even, “What’s a president do?” or “Who are those groups?” (referring to Democrats and Republicans) are simple questions that she’s asked that create opportunities to talk with her about things that are important for her to learn.
Erin Leyba has a great article on other simple ways to stimulate engagement in daily life: “10 Ways to Use Walks to Teach and Bond with Young Kids” from Psychology Today. When I go for walks with my daughter, especially when walking the dogs around the neighborhood, I like pointing out the holiday decorations. It’s a way to talk about holidays, cultural practices, ways that people are different in how and what they celebrate, and even weather changes.
There are simple ways to facilitate engagement that promote learning. Goldstein showed in studies that active responsiveness could increase learning significantly within just 10 minutes of engagement. That’s a powerful thing.
We don’t always have to be “on” as parents – no one is perfect, and we are humans with limits – but if we keep in mind what matters, engagement (talking with and reacting to our children) over simplistic exposure (propping them in front of educational videos or just talking at them), we increase the likelihood of their having higher quality experiences and potentially greater quality relationships with us as well.
For Further Reading
Goldstein, Michael H., et al. “The Value of Vocalizing: Five-Month-Old Infants Associate Their Own Noncry Vocalizations with Responses from Caregivers.” Child Development. May-Jun 2009. Vol. 80, No. 3. pp.636-644.
Tamis-LeMonda, et al. “Maternal Responsiveness and Children’s Achievement of Language Milestones.” Child Development. May-Jun 2001. Vol 72, No.3. pp.748-767.