Picture your baby asking for something to eat, or for help when they need it. Imagine having a conversation with them about the environment around them. Such is the draw of teaching American Sign Language to babies and toddlers.
“I don’t think it’s hard at all,” said Rebecca Demarest, the woman behind Happy Babble: a sign language program for little hands. “ I think it’s just a natural extension of the way we’re communicating with our kids.”
Demarest, who teaches classes all over the Capital District, recently wrapped up a four-week program at Bethlehem Public Library, where parents and children learned more than 30 words in an interactive, play-driven setting.
“Mom” is easy motion with the thumb away from the chin; “dad” is the same motion, only from the forehead, instructs Demarest to a roomful of children ages 6 months to 3 years, who are joined by parents, grandparents or babysitters. She explains how the signs originated decades ago, when women wore bonnets that fell to their chins and men wore top hats that landed across their foreheads.
Lessons typically start with the “Hello Song,” and on this day, a few children take the opportunity to provide some entertainment as they dance in front of the group. Demarest then moves on to the instruction part of the class, focusing on foods. Using a felt board, she shows the class the signs for apple, cookie, cake, then moves on to reading “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” using the new signs in a fun, interactive setting.
Demarest said that learning to communicate using sign language may take practice, but with time, children can learn skills to communicate before they can even speak.
“I think it cuts down on frustration a lot,” said Demarest. “If they can’t tell you what they want out loud, they can sign it, and we know, ‘Oh, they’re crying because they want the goldfish on the counter’ instead of just pointing at them and screaming.”
Kids develop their gross motor movements before they develop their speech abilities, so babies can sign before they can talk, making sign language an easy way to communicate before verbal skills develop, said Demarest.
“Babies and toddlers can cry a lot, but because they can’t say what is wrong, sometimes parents have to guess. So giving them a few key signs [to express what they need] is really helpful,” she said.
During Demarest’s courses, parents can easily learn up to 70 signed words to help their babies communicate, but whether their kids pick up the words has a lot to do with how much the parents are signing at home, said Demarest. “And also the personality of the child,” she added. “Some kids get it just like that. I’ve had babies as young as 9 months pick it up.”
Once children begin to develop verbal language skills, around 2 years old, signing skills are typically dropped. This transition usually happens quickly.
Parents in Demarest’s class at the library said they we pleased to be learning new ways to communicate with their children.
“It’s cool – something different,” said Kathy Antoniewicz, mother of Ayla, 1. “She’s not communicating verbally, so I’d like to try know what she’s trying to tell me.”
Dan Gonsiewski and his grandson, Max, 1 have attended the entire four-week program at the library.
“He’s before preschool age, so it’s a way to learn communication early, and hangout and socialize,” said Gonsiewski.
While the kids in the program may not have a full sign language vocabulary by the time the course is over, with practice, the skills can be learned. Demarest points to her own daughter as the perfect example
“I started signing to her very casually, then around 8 months, I noticed she was signing back at me, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is easy,’ so I started forming classes and started teaching them,” she said.
Demarest’s daughter, now 4, still holds on to some of the signs she learned as a baby, especially having attended so many of her mom’s classes.
Demarest learned to sign while working toward her undergraduate degree in American Sign Language from the University of Rochester. She also has a master’s degree in speech and language pathology from Northeastern University. She worked at a school for the deaf, before moving to the Capital District. In 2012 she began Happy Babble, where she offers classes for children ages 6 to 24 months, parent consultations, classes for teachers, and instruction for children with special needs. The learn more, visit happybabble.net.