Making time to whānau kōrero, and to share conversations with tamariki, is invaluable for their learning and development.

By school entry some tamariki have rich and remarkable vocabularies and can chat away easily about any number of topics. Others may have as many as 3,000 words less than their peers. What makes the difference?

We know that children don’t learn language in a vacuum, they need others to communicate with. They will flourish best with articulate adults who engage them in conversations and are great language role models. But is it just a matter of ‘more is better’?

How caregivers can boost young brains

This article from the Harvard Graduate School of Education called How caregivers can boost young brains(external link) reports that it’s not just the number of words spoken to or by tamariki that counts, but the layers of conversation.

The Harvard article describes 5 steps for parents or caregivers to practise ‘serve and return’ conversations.

1) Notice what has grabbed the child’s attention. That’s the serve.

2) Respond with support. Acknowledge and reward the child with encouragement.

3) Name it. It’s now the adult’s turn to comment on what’s interested the child.

4) Keep it going. Take turns and remember to give the child enough time to respond.

5) Practise endings. Let the child end the interaction when they’re ready to move on.

These 5 steps comprise the key components of learning how to engage in conversation. However, the serve and return interactions are also essential components for relationship building, which also flourishes when it happens between a child and a responsive adult.

Just as the article called Talking and listening says, we learn that serve and return interactions help to build and strengthen the structures in a baby’s brain. The same applies to the talking ‘with’ rather than talking ‘to’ tamariki.

Talking is teaching and learning

It might seem surprising that the oral language experiences of some children are so vastly different than others. But those children who’ve had many hours of conversations with interested and engaged adults show that this hasn’t been wasted breath. In fact, it has been important teaching and learning time.

Sometimes parents with limited experience in caring for young children might assume that talking with a young baby is pointless until they can at least talk back. This is a misunderstanding, because having whānau who talk, sing and read to them is beneficial for all aspects of the child’s growth and development.

Helping parents to see the value in early conversations could certainly make the difference in how well their child’s language progresses. This has been acknowledged in some promising local initiatives in the USA. The first Talking is teaching playground(external link) was launched in 2015 in Panorama City, Los Angeles. Alongside the play equipment, these playgrounds include visually appealing panels with simple conversation prompts on them designed to encourage fun and language-rich interactions between kids and their parents while they play.

Constant noise and striking a balance

Just the day-to-day noise that young children make can sometimes get on parents’ nerves. Some days there seems to be non-stop grizzling, constant questioning, and continual shouting or sibling arguments. Days like these can really drive parents crazy, especially if they’re trying to focus on something else. It’s easy to see how tempting it can be to put the kids in front of the TV, computer, Xbox or PlayStation to be entertained.

However, this does little for the serve and return interactions they really need and will benefit greatly from. Working out an acceptable balance is the answer. Talking with the kids about the need for parents to have some quiet time is important, so long as there is also plenty of time for talking and listening for everyone in the whānau.

It might be that meal times are an opportunity for whānau kōrero. Or after kai the devices get turned off and everyone knows it’s the time for talking or singing or reading together. With babies it could be that feeding time, bath time or nappy changing is purely focused on them, and during those care moments the important serve and return interactions can happen quite naturally.