Cheyenne Millan was eager to tell other parents and grandparents in the room at Kansas City’s Faxon Elementary School about how well her 5-year-old son Ezekiel is talking.
“He says, ‘Mommy, you don’t love me,’” Millan said. “He says, ‘Don’t you remember when I was in your tummy and you said you love me?’ And I said to him, ‘Of course I remember. But how do you remember?’ And he said, ‘I was there. Hel-lo!’”
Millan said she spends a lot of time talking with her son — exactly what the child development campaign Talk Read Play is promoting in a big way in the Kansas City area this year.
“We want parents to know to talk to their kids every day,” said Meg Fuehne, an infant and toddler specialist with the Family Conservancy, the nonprofit spreading the Talk Read Play message here.
Talk Read Play is popping up in cities across the country and abroad. It’s inspired by the work of the late Betty Hart, a University of Kansas early childhood language researcher.
Hart and co-researcher Todd Risley, a senior scientist at the Schiefelbusch Institute for Life Span Studies at KU, chronicled the language-learning experiences of 42 children in their book “Meaningful Differences in Everyday Lives of American Children.”
The children, from infancy to age 3, were selected from across socioeconomic groups. The researchers’ findings supported the idea that children enter school better prepared to learn if their parents talked to them, read to them and interacted in play with them at the earliest ages.
The more parents talk to children beyond instructional conversations — do this, don’t do that — the broader the child’s vocabulary, said Dean Olson, vice president of programs with the Family Conservancy.
Too many parents still are not aware that communication with their young child affects language development, or they don’t know how to talk to their infant or toddler, he said. Some young parents didn’t think they needed to start talking to their child until the child could actually talk back.
But talking to a child in utero isn’t too early, said Fuehne, who is nearly nine months pregnant and talks to her unborn child every day.
The research shows that infants and toddlers who hear 2,153 words per hour, or 11 million words per year, by age 3 have a vocabulary of 1,100 words. Those who hear only 616 words per hour, or 3 million words per year, end up with a 500-word vocabulary.
Boston developed a Talk Read Play program five years ago, about the same time Kansas City early childhood education experts were asking themselves, “What is the most important message parents need to know to help with the development of their child?” Olson said. “We decided it was talk, read, play with their child every day.”
Similar programs also exist in Wisconsin and Tennessee.
The Kansas City campaign began in 2011 with little funding and the distribution of several hundred Talk Read Play pamphlets to doctors’ offices, schools and child care providers.
Last year, in an attempt to see how well preschoolers respond to the program, another KU researcher, Dale Walker with the Juniper Gardens Children’s Project in Wyandotte County, conducted a study with funding from the United Way of Wyandotte County.
Researchers chose a dozen child care environments — half for a control group, and half to be introduced to Talk Read Play. They observed how the program affected their communication. Results of that study were released this month.
“When we started the study, many of the children in the control and the experimentation group had communication skills below benchmark for their age,” Walker said. “Basically what we found was after only a few months of exposure, more children in the experimentation group had improvements in communication skills.”
Those who got Talk Read Play intervention moved out of the risk category, she said.
“We see big gains when parents have ways of making language-learning opportunities richer,” Walker said.
Armed with new research, the Family Conservancy is making a push to saturate the area with information about Talk Read Play.
The success of the program could make big strides toward closing the achievement gap between children from low- and upper-income families.
“And that is exactly the idea,” Fuehne said.
As part of the Family Conservancy’s public awareness campaign, the nonprofit is handing out pamphlets, fliers and refrigerator magnets, and it’s looking for funding to light up billboards and flash the message across metro buses.
“The goal is to have parents see or hear the message somewhere at least seven times a year,” said Charlotte Davison, a volunteer for Talk Read Play with Village Church in Prairie Village.
Conservancy community volunteers have reached out to child care agencies, churches and schools to spread the word to parents. In the Ivanhoe community alone, that effort has reached 20 churches and trained 120 providers this year, said Sabrina Boyd, a parent education coordinator for the Family Conservancy.
At Faxon, parents and grandparents got tips on some of the best times to talk to babies: diaper changing time, bath time and dinnertime. They learned how important it is to expand on a toddler’s fragmented speech. If a small child points and says “Milk,” a mother might respond, “Oh, you want more milk.”
Parents said they believe in talking to their babies and listening when the child begins to talk back because they have seen the concept work.
Antwonette Thomas remembers riding in the front passenger seat of a van her boyfriend was driving. His son and her daughter, both 4, talked to each other in the backseat.
“We were just listening,” Thomas recalled. The little girl spoke to the boy, and he said, “Wait, I’m trying to concentrate.”
Thomas said she looked at her boyfriend and asked: “Did I just hear that right? Did that little boy just say he was trying to concentrate?
“These kids are so smart. You never know what they are going to say.”