Give me a sign!

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There are many milestones that we expect babies to reach – regardless of whether we’ve read the Early Years Foundation Stage! For example, smiling for the first time, or reaching out to Daddy, and we often include things such as wave ‘bye bye’ or ‘hello’. It’s not just about physical coordination but primarily about social interaction. Babies are social beings from birth, eager to communicate. There is a lovely video clip of a baby, only a few minutes old, poking his tongue out, copying his dad as he pokes his tongue out at the baby.

Communication is vital in the early years and one of the ways that we can support young children to communicate is by using sign language with them. I taught all three of my children to sign and they communicated with me through signs way before they could speak! I remember, I was once approached in the supermarket when I was using sign language with my baby and asked, ‘Oh, is she deaf?’ to which I replied that she can hear perfectly but I chose to use signs with her so that she could communicate earlier. ‘But won’t that delay her speech?’ I was asked.

It’s a common misconception that using signs with young children will delay their speech when it actually does the opposite – it accelerates it!

Research has shown using signs has lots of benefits for both adults and children:

  • Signing can decrease frustration in the early years before speech is developed enough to express a child’s needs and wants, thus fewer tantrums!
  • It has been noted that babies who use signs have a greater attention span and can focus for longer on play
  • Signing assists understanding of language for some children as the action reinforces what the signer is saying
  • Signing often reinforces the bond between adult and child as it offers a shared understanding and quality 1:1 time together
  • Children who sign are often more interested in books as they can ‘read’ the pictures using signs
  • Everyone in contact with the child can use the same signs and therefore assist communication between them and their carers offering consistency for the child
  • Adults can understand and interpret what a child is trying to tell them more easily
  • Parents/carers can communicate earlier with their baby as actions precede speech in child development.

Within a setting, signing with young children will enable practitioners to get to know the child’s needs and wants and plan effectively to meet those needs, demonstrating to parents their thorough knowledge of the child and contributing to a positive relationship with the whole family. In this YouTube video, Hannah is using sign language to communicate her needs. Her mum has asked if she wants a drink or some food, she thinks about it and responds ‘orange’ in sign language. She is offered an orange or banana and Hannah repeats ‘orange’ again by signing, clearly mouthing ‘o’ at the same time. She is 15 1/2 months old and cannot yet say ‘orange’, yet she clearly makes her preferences known and demonstrates excitement when she is understood.

Signing with young children closely links with the EYFS Prime Areas of Personal, Social and Emotional Development as children are able to build relationships, interact with others and use gestures to communicate and gain attention, Physical Development as children learn to control their movements and deliberately move their hands and bodies to make signs, and Communication and Language as children use signs to communicate their needs and wants. It also links with other areas like Literacy as children learn to ‘read’ stories using the signs that they have learned, and Expressive Arts and Design as young children express and communicate their own ideas, thoughts and feelings through signs.

Top tips for success:

  • Begin with a few signs that you can use every day – such as more, eat, milk, juice and finished/all gone
  • Always say the word when you sign
  • Maintain eye contact or sign when your child is focussed on the relevant object
  • Be consistent – encourage all carers to use the same signs
  • Only sign key words using simple sentences – one sign per sentence is often enough
  • Follow the child’s lead – increase your signing vocabulary when they are ready and use signs that they are interested in
  • Teach children signs using rhymes, stories and songs as well as through conversation
  • Repetition is the key…

You can start to sign with children at any age, but it is most beneficial between the ages of 6 months and 3 years. So go on, give me a sign!

About the author

Tamsin GTamsin Grimmer photo2rimmer is an experienced early years consultant and trainer and parent who is passionate about young children’s learning and development. She believes that all children deserve practitioners who are inspiring, dynamic, reflective and committed to improving on their current best. Tamsin particularly enjoys planning and delivering training and supporting early years practitioners and teachers to improve outcomes for young children.

You can contact Tamsin via Twitter @tamsingrimmer, her Facebook pagewebsite or email info@tamsingrimmer.co.uk

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