Early childhood education has been getting more attention in recent years—and for good reason. Of all the ways that we spend our collective money trying to make kids do better in school, become valuable contributors to society, and stay out of prison, it’s been shown to be the best investment by far. If you’re in the mood to cry a little, check out this video to see the impact that early intervention programs can have on a child’s life.
While it’s no secret that children from impoverished families are more likely to live in poverty as adults, we haven’t really done a great job fixing this problem. There are loads of government programs that address this goal with varying degrees of success, but what if you could do the same thing at home, for free?
One of the seminal studies in early childhood development was performed by Betty Hart and Todd Risley. These researchers were investigating how interactions between parents and young children affected those children’s language development and intelligence. They performed a study involving the number of words spoken by parents in the home, looking at a large variety of families across different socioeconomic and racial/ethnic backgrounds. For 2 1/2 years, they went into each home every month and measured the number of words spoken to each baby.
They divided the types of spoken words into 2 categories: “functional” and “non-functional.” Functional speech is telling a child to do something, such as “Put your shoes on” or “Stop that.” Non-functional speech refers to words that go beyond simple commands. Some examples of non-functional speech would be “Now Mommy is going to cut the carrots up into little pieces and mix them in the soup,” “I’m going to snap all these tiny snaps on your cute little onesie,” “Wow, you made a giant stinky surprise for Daddy—I’m so glad he just got home from work,” etc.
What they found was that, while functional speech was essentially the same throughout all households, non-functional speech was markedly different. In fact, by the time the children turned 4 years old, there was a 30-million word gap in the total number of words they had heard spoken by their parents at home. This gap corresponded to significantly different results on vocabulary tests at 3 years of age as well as on reading comprehension tests years later.
What does this mean for your baby? The more you talk to your baby, the faster her language will develop, and the smarter she will be. Hearing voices from TV or radio doesn’t count—other studies have shown that your baby favors the voices of her mother and father (or other primary caregivers), and picks up a great deal from your facial expressions and non-verbal communication as well. Take advantage of every opportunity to talk, sing, or read to your baby. A great way to do this is by talking to your baby about what you are doing–whether you are making dinner, changing a diaper, or walking around the park. Think of yourself as a constant narrator for your child’s life, making associations that will contribute to your child’s language and cognitive development, and getting your baby ready for graduate school.