A query came from another young mother:
“I have a six-month-old baby and I’m a single mom without much money to take her to mommy-and-me classes and such. Are there games or activities I can do with my baby at home to help her language development? She’s healthy and doing everything she’s supposed to do at this age, the doctor says. Thanks, Doing My Best.”
Dear “Doing My Best”,
It sounds to me like you are on the right path already by even wanting to know how to do more with your little one! Being a single mom is difficult, let alone having limited funds. The good news is that you don’t need to spend money on classes and expensive toys and gadgets–YOU, and things you already have at home, are the best ‘tools’ for your baby–you likely have everything you need already!
Babies have an innate ability to develop language, and are marvels in how they manage to make meaning of the world around them. Almost all they need for it is you and exposure to language through you–their caregiver. She needs your attention, sensitivity, time, and commitment. There are many things you can do during your everyday activities with her that would foster comprehension, listening, turn-taking, sound production, connection, shared attention and cognitive development–all the makings of language and communication development.
Language exposure is important, so talk to your child about everything you do. Use her name when you call her, look at photos of herself and yourself and other people she knows–point to the photos and tell her who these are. Books are great, as well. Read to her every night–it is never too early to start and make it a habit. Board books are sturdy and great fun, and you can let her turn the pages if she wants (lift-flap books where she can ‘find’ things are fun, too).
You don’t need to buy many books–maybe just get a few favorites. Borrow the rest at the library. Take her with you if you can and choose the books together. Make this part of your fun time. You don’t need to read every word in a book, either–flow with it, narrate the pictures, respond to her reactions (e.g. “yes, you are touching the lion, that’s the lion and he can roar… and that’s the giraffe, look how tall it is! It can reach all the way up in the tree!”). Make book-reading part of your connecting and listening time.
Everyday activities are excellent opportunities for language exposure: narrate whatever you are doing together, when you are out on a walk, in the playground, food shopping, or doing household chores (she can help …) such as folding laundry, straightening up, or mushing cooked veggies for her food (“Oh, here’s your red shirt! Let’s fold your shirt so we can put it in your drawer. Look how nice and clean it is! Now…where are your socks–here’s one sock, and here’s the other… You want to hold the socks? Here you are. Oh, aren’t you smart! You know they go on your feet! Let’s put them on–one sock on this foot, and another sock for that foot …”) etc.
Take turns by playing games like peek-a-boo, clapping, nursery songs that have predictable body movements (the wheels on the bus, itsy-bitsy spider … borrow a CD from the library if you don’t remember them, you’ll know them by heart in no time…). Take turns banging on things to make noise together (you don’t need to spend money on a drum, an upside down pot with a spoon works great, too …), build a ‘tower’ from a few blocks and knock it down, then build again and let her knock it down (plastic cups or containers work well. You can fill closed containers with some dried beans of pasta if you want–for heft and sound–just make sure they are sealed tight!). Babies love repetition, so be ready to do this quite a few times.
You can roll a ball back and forth, pick up toys together (it may take a while, if she decides that taking out of the box is just as much if not more fun!), hand her spoons to put in the drawer, fill and empty a basket of lemons or oranges (no items smaller than a Ping-Pong ball, because they can be a chocking hazard), fill and empty a cup with water during bath-time.
Model symbolic play: ‘feed’ the stuffed animals and dolls with a spoon, put them to bed, ‘offer’ them a bottle. Put them in the stroller and take them for a walk in the house, play peek-a-boo with the dolls and let her have a turn, as well.
Through it all, talk to her. Listen to what she is ‘saying’ (babbling…) back. Comment about what you are doing. Comment a lot about what she is doing, her expressions, the sounds she’s making, how she might be feeling, how she makes you feel. Praise her for achievements (picking up a cheerio and managing to get it into one’s little mouth is no small feet of coordination!), let her know you are interested and that she is interesting, lovable, adorable, and fun.
Language development is closely related to and develops right alongside cognition, motor ability, sensory ability, listening, and understanding things about the world (e.g. you let go of the spoon with sweet potato on it, and it falls on the ground, making pretty splatter…! Mommy picks it up and wipes the floor, and when you let go of it, it falls again! How fun!…). Use your everyday interactions with your little one to comment on your world and hers, on your shared experiences. You don’t need commercial specific toys: let her play with wooden spoons, plastic containers (these can nestle, and you can also put things in them…and take things out…), an empty seltzer bottle with some pasta in it, pots and pans. A dish-towel makes a great ‘peek-a-boo’ cover, and a blanket for the teddy bear, too.
Babies and toddlers are utterly and preciously amazing. She’s already learning every day, and you have the opportunity to be her most important connection, attachment figure, playmate, and teacher–all in one. Enjoy her, and I wish the two of you oodles of fun!