"Do you like green eggs and ham?" Sean Gray, an architect at D.W. Arthur Associates, would begin the classic Dr. Suess book to his restless 2 and 4 year olds. As this was likely the 4 millionth time of his reading this particular story and the kids didn't seem to be paying attention, Sean would stealthily skip a few rhyming pages. They could sense the change in the story, or perhaps Sean's slight smile gave him away, and they would shout, "wait wait WAIT! you missed the part about the goat!" The reading of the longest book comprised of just 50 unique words would continue on to its grueling end.
Luckily, the monotony didn't deter Sean from his habit of reading to his children. Based on early education research, the volume of words heard between age 0 to 3 is one of the most important factors in early language development. From a landmark study by a pair of psychologists, a staggering correlation was found between the number of words spoken to the child and the child's verbal ability and success in school. Up until the age of three, most children's primary conversation partners are adults. The varied language spoken by these adults, likely parents or care takers, help to develop language skills.
The article "Talk to Me, Baby!: Supporting Language Development in the First 3 Years" by Betty Bardige, Ed.D., a developmental psychologist and educator, explores the findings of the landmark study and other subsequent studies. According to Dr. Bardige, "rich language input and responsive, playful relationships during the preverbal and one-word stages build a reservoir of linguistic and conceptual knowledge that fuels the toddler's language explosion." Those who use words well have ongoing advantages. In preschool, they are sought after by their peers for their ability to have play conversations. They are also better able to explain their feelings or their problems, allowing them to talk through conflict. Dr. Bardige also notes that children who enter kindergarten possessing a better understanding of word meanings and sentence construction are better prepared for reading.
Designing Spaces for Words:
One of the simplest ways to create space for verbal development is to include a library within a children's center. Dr. Bardige writes that "book sharing is one of the best ways to enrich talk" with infants, toddlers and young children. Creating a shared children's library gives emphasis to the activity of reading. If space is limited, children's libraries need not be their own distinct room - they can be located in alcoves off of circulation paths or share space with other destination programming, such as gross-motor or art rooms.
Parent/Child Transition Space
Parents are children's main source of communication, so creating a space for parent/child dialogue is important. Reach Out and Read, a nonprofit program based on language and cognitive skills research, creates "literary rich environments" within doctors' offices to encourage families to read together. Child care centers can easily incorporate similar strategies; a parent/child library can be integrated into the drop off or transition space and resource material on the importance of reading together can be offered there. Comfortable seating and a bookshelf could foster new transition rituals with cognitive benefits.
Spaces that encourage exposure to variations of speech is beneficial to development. Dr. Bardige suggests talking a lot around children; babies need to hear real language (not just baby talk) and toddlers can learn from adults using more advanced words in "context that make their meaning clear." Communal space where multiple classrooms can gather and the teachers are both addressing the children and each other can add to the enrichment of language. The communal space can also host events or lectures from outside of the center, especially if the center is part of a larger institutional or commercial campus. A well-designed gathering space encourages verbal engagement by supporting a range of different types of communication, exposing the nascent students to large volumes and variations of language.