GREENFIELD — Sitting on the floor in an activity room at the Hancock County Public Library, 1-year-old Ryan Doughtie smiled wide as children’s librarian Sara Cloyd blew bubbles into his face.
“More bubbles?” Cloyd cooed at the baby.
Ryan tapped his pudgy hands together in response, using sign language to answer Cloyd.
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Ryan’s mother, Amy Doughtie, sat behind him and grinned.
Doughtie has worked with children professionally for many years, so she knows, firsthand, how frustrating crying can be for children and adults alike.
She decided early on that she would teach her son sign language to help ease those frustrations and give him a way to communicate before he’s able to talk.
So far, she said, it’s been very helpful.
“We thought it would be a good way to get us through the terrible 2s,” she said, explaining that Ryan often utilizes signs for more, milk, eat and done. “If he’s crying, I can just ask him what he wants, and he answers with the sign.”
Doughtie’s beliefs about childhood communication are backed up by science.
Research has shown that teaching children ages 8 months to 2 years old to use sign language to communicate has countless benefits for both children and their parents or caregivers.
“There are very good studies which show that sign language helps (babies) develop their understanding of speech and language,” said Dr. P.J. Halter of Hancock Pediatrics. “Understanding and generating speech happens in the same part of the brain whether you’re using sign language or speech; the motor skills used (to transfer the message) are just different.”
Just like adults, babies become aggravated when there is a misunderstanding, said Lisa Henley, director of child quality initiatives for the Indiana Association of Child Care Resource and Referral. Without that ability to talk, they have no way of righting that misunderstanding.
“Communication is important in so many ways,” Henley said. “But without language, children can’t communicate what they need, so they cry or yell. Sign language gives them a way of getting their needs met.”
The Indiana Association of Child Care Resource and Referral, commonly referred to as the Indiana Bureau of Child Care, sets the standards for childcare providers across the state. In 2006, they initiated the Say it with Your Hands Program, which gave early education teachers and day care associates the tools, directions and skills necessary for integrating American Sign Language into their daily activities with children.
Sign language lessons have been a popular addition to daily life at local day care centers and preschools since the Say it with Your Hands Program was put in place.
Linda Bunton, a child care provider for House of Kids Inc. in Greenfield, said their facility often uses sign language with its infants and 1-year-olds. Employees incorporated the lessons into their curriculum after attending a number of workshops where sign language was strongly suggested because of the benefits it has on a child’s development of language and learning skills.
“It is considered a second language, so the earlier we can start teaching them, the better,” Bunton said. “Most of our parents really like it, too, because they can use the signs at home.”
Kids who attend Lucky’s Daycare and Preschool are also taught sign language.
While the lessons are not a regular part of their curriculum, owner Lucky Farrior said employees have chosen to add selected signs into their daily activities to help kids get through rough times.
The ability to communicate not only reduces a child’s challenging behaviors but helps them bond with those around them, Farrior said.
“There is a back and forth that can happen once babies learn to sign, and that makes them feel connected to the people around them. They gain self-esteem,” Hensley said. “It’s about building a positive relationship, whether it’s verbal or not.”
For parents looking to teach their infants and toddlers to sign, the Hancock County Public Library has many books and resources, as well as the occasional class, Cloyd said.
Cloyd recently hosted Baby Sign Language Storytime at the library, where she brought those resources and some tips from them to parents’ attention.
Cloyd recommended that parents and caregivers work American Sign Language into their child’s daily activities, whether by signing while reading stories, singing songs or just during conversations. The more often the child sees the sign, the better the child will learn to associate words with the proper hand motions.
“It’s best to start off with simple signs and just add more as they keep learning,” she said.
Studies suggest that teaching infants and toddlers American Sign Language between the ages of 8 months and 2 years old can give them a way to communicate before they develop speech.
The Mayo Clinic provides the following tips to get the most out of teaching a child to sign:
1. Set sensible goals – Children can start learning sign language at any age, but most don’t start communicating until they are at least 8 months old. Don’t get discouraged if the child doesn’t start using signs before then.
2. Stick with simple signs – Think of the items, activities and routines the baby utilizes most during the day. Teaching signs for more, eat, drink, Mom and Dad are good places to start.
3. Make lessons interactive – Using the child’s hands to create the sign is a good teaching tactic. Saying the word while signing also helps kids learn.
4. Be patient – While parents should not accept random gestures as signs, they should not get discouraged if a child does not pick up on signs right away. Practice makes perfect.