Building Blocks of Childhood: The Value of an Interactive Environment

Many parents create a wonderful training ground for language in the early years. They do this more or less naturally. When baby says "da-da," parents echo the cute sounds, cooing "da-da" back. This encourages baby to keep babbling. When baby reaches or points, mommy responds by giving him what he wants. The child's actions have a concrete effect. Daddy and baby play Peek-a-Boo over and over, establishing a routine for interaction that enriches them both. When baby says "ba-ba," mommy says, "Here's your bottle." This modeling of adult words in context gives sound a meaning -- and baby a reward. Many researchers believe rich layers of experience are instrumental in propelling a child's growth.

Now, here's the rub. A child with developmental delays may not do the things that parents typically respond to. They may not show they are ready to communicate, and so the dance between parent and child is delayed and awkward. "This is not the fault of the parent. It is just another aspect to disability that must be overcome," says Steven F. Warren, director of the Schiefelbusch Institute for Life Span Studies and professor of human development at the University of Kansas.

Having a stimulating environment is not as critical for normally developing children, says Warren, because they have the ability and inclination to go after what they need. "Research shows that children with cognitive or behavioral disorders need even more experience and advantages, but the challenges created by disability can lead to greater and greater delays in communication over time."

There are a number of methods for parents who want to understand the challenges faced by their child and take steps to improve their outcomes, says Warren. The Hanen Early Language Program, developed in Toronto, Canada, "has an excellent reputation for helping families create enriched home environments for children with language delays or autism," says Warren.

This is third in a four-part series, The Building Blocks of Childhood, with Steven Warren and Nancy Brady, scientists at the Schiefelbusch Life Span Institute, and written by Joy Simpson. The series includes:


Part 1: What we know about communication between infants and parents

Part 2: Signposts of Disability: What Parents Can Observe

Part 3: The Value of an Interactive Environment

Part 4: Prelinguistic Milieu Teaching: A Boost for Children Age 2


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Zero to Three: National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families. Brainwonders: Helping Babies and Toddlers Grow and Develop - an online guide for parents.