“ Sign language for babies in Durham County. „
Several years ago I was fascinated when I first read about the concept of Baby Sign language. I wished that I had been able to try it with my two children but by that time they were both already at primary school and it would have been a little bit pointless, not to mention embarrassing, dragging them along to a signing class.
However, when I was pregnant with baby number three it was one of the things I was most looking forward to trying. So I was very excited during a visit to a local Surestart Centre when they mentioned they were having a visit from a local representative of Signing Tots, a small local company that runs baby signing courses. During the demonstration it was amazing that all of the babies - all under one year - stopped to look in awe as the representative took out a large puppet and sang and signed a couple of songs.
At the end of the session it was announced that Surestart were going to be funding a programme to run in their local centre beginning in a couple of months time. Imagine my disappointment when I realised the day the course would be on was a day when I would be back at work. I spoke to the Signing Tots representative who informed me that there would be other classes taking place elsewhere in the county and I would be able to attend one of these. She took my details and promised to phone with course details in a month or two.
Sure enough, a couple of months later, I received the call and my experience with baby signing began.
** So what's it all about then? **
Several research studies appear to have shown that babies who have studied sign language are able to communicate at a much earlier age than would normally be expected. Some studies have claimed that signing babies have wider vocabularies, increased interest in books and experience less frustration and increased communication than non-signing babies. With this in mind courses have been developed to enable babies to learn sign language in a fun and entertaining way.
Despite the fact that it's the first question that almost everyone seems to ask, baby signing does not delay speech; on the contrary, it has been argued that it encourages language development as words are spoken alongside the signs so baby's vocabulary is being expanded constantly.
** How do the classes work? **
Each Signing Tots class proceeds in a similar manner. Each class begins with a welcome song, where babies are wished Good Morning or Good Afternoon. During the hour long session, babies and their carers learn a number of songs that can be accompanied by signs. The songs used are both familiar ones and ones that I haven't ever heard before and each one has a purpose in teaching a variety of signs, such as "I can sing a rainbow" to teach the signs for colours or "I Hear Thunder" to teach weather signs. The songs are repeated each week so that they become familiar over the six weeks of the course - some are so catchy that I find myself singing them all the way home.
Each week new vocabulary is introduced. The initial session is concerned with teaching basic vocabulary for all of baby's needs - for example, milk, sleep, nappy. My son, who was 9 months when he began the course, learned milk very quickly, and it had such an effect that whenever he saw it he immediately began rooting around for a feed. Eventually, the course leader began hiding the sign from him when she did her recap; I imagine she was probably fed up with her class being interrupted by my son's incessant demands for milk!
I am currently almost at the point of completing the Stage 2 course and over the weeks the babies have been introduced to signs for toys, animals, weather, colours, Christmas and food plus many more. The course leader uses a variety of different props, including the puppets Sam and Sally (who the babies find very intriguing), a pop up frog, an automatic bubble blower, a jack-in-the-box teddy, a spider to accompany Insey Wincy Spider and a family of rubber ducks, including the biggest Daddy Duck I've ever seen! For the vast majority of the class the babies will sit and watch, although no-one really minds if they crawl away to explore. After attending a few sessions the babies recognise the songs and props used and will often bounce up and down or clap when they hear a familiar tune. The classes have also shown how books can be used alongside sign language, in particular with the use of the book "Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do you See?" which can be used to practise animal and colour signs.
A handout sheet is given every week with all of the new signs on it as an easy reference guide to use at home. The only slight problem with this is that some of the signs are difficult to follow from a drawing, and if you can't remember how they were done in the class it can be difficult to work out how to sign certain words. Many of the signs are fairly self-explanatory though, so it's only the odd one I find tricky.
Even if nothing is learned, it is an enjoyable session and the time seems to fly by! The course leader is very bubbly and enthusiastic and makes each week fun. It is also a good way to meet other parents, mostly Mums but sometimes Dads, and their babies. The groups are quite small - usually between four and ten parents and their babies, so it's not at all intimidating.
** Does it work? **
Obviously, a baby isn't going to pick up sign language from one hourly session a week; it needs to be followed up at home. Luckily as much of the course is song based it is fairly easy to do and I try to sing at least some of the songs each day. I have found that when my baby is getting grumpy and whingy he will often quieten down and listen if I sing a song he recognises and he is trying to do actions to some of the songs - although not necessarily at the right point in the song!
He has done a few of the signs, notably milk, all gone, no, hot and good. Interestingly he often signs good when he is getting into mischief - pulling books off a shelf or trying to get to the wires behind the television. I'm not sure who he's trying to convince! I also think he understands more signs than he will sign himself as he will often turn to look to the thing I am signing.
** Pricing information **
The course that I have attended was priced at £35 for each six week course and this fee was paid in full at the beginning of the course. Surestart centres will sometimes subsidise the course; the one I was originally going to attend was due to cost £5 - a big saving if you can find one running locally.
** Additional Information **
Signing Tots also run other classes and workshops. They will run sessions at your home if you are unable to attend an organised course. Also they will run courses and workshops for childminders, nurseries and schools. It may be thought that the courses wouldn't be any use for children who can already speak but I have been using some of the songs as an end of the day activity with my Reception / Key Stage 1 class and they absolutely LOVE it! They have picked the signs up really quickly and will line up using the signs for the group they sit in, and at a recent school disco one of the Reception aged children signed to me across the room that he was very happy, which was really cute! It also seems to be improving their concentration and eye contact which are skills that can often be lacking in small children.
Sing and Sign sessions can also be booked as entertainment for birthday parties and christenings, something I might look into for next year!
Signing Tots Classes are held all across County Durham but I am sure there are similar baby signing courses in all other areas.
** Would I Recommend It? **
Personally I would. I have enjoyed the sessions and so has my baby and I look forward to him picking up more and more signs. I appreciate that the course may not have the same appeal to everyone though. My husband came with me a couple of times and found it highly embarrassing having to sing and sign in front of people. I must admit I don't really like having to sing in front of other adults myself but I get round that by singing softly into my baby's ear. The only slight niggle I have is that the songs that are on the accompanying CD (as opposed to the songs that are sung without a backing track) are American CDs and use American vocabulary (eg rooster instead of cockerel) and sing with an American accent which is difficult to sing along with, but this is just a personal annoyance of mine and it probably wouldn't bother most people.
A final thought is that it is an interrupted hour every week where you can focus your attention completely on your baby - and that can't be bad, can it?