Running out of things to talk with your toddler about? These apps can help

Bill Mount

“We started thinking about apps because everyone is spending so much time on screens. We know that smartphones detract from parent-child interaction. The goal was really to create apps that require interaction between the child and someone else, designed as something to do together,” says Meredith Rowe, one of the […]

“We started thinking about apps because everyone is spending so much time on screens. We know that smartphones detract from parent-child interaction. The goal was really to create apps that require interaction between the child and someone else, designed as something to do together,” says Meredith Rowe, one of the app developers and the Saul Zaentz Professor of Early Learning and Development at Harvard.

Most of all, the apps are designed to help parents talk with their children instead of merely at them, Rowe says, which is a key way to maintain oral language skills at a fraught time. The apps let families draw and decorate their own personal photos; act out dialogue as animal characters; and play conversation-driven games. They’re available at www.gse.harvard.edu/apps/early-literacy.

Rowe worries about the pandemic’s effects on early childhood literacy as children spend more time at home with a small group of people (possibly burnt-out parents), watching more TV or playing on iPads and having fewer opportunities for socialization.

“Because of the pandemic, children are arriving back at preschool with reduced language skills. Language is the foundation of literacy. Building a strong vocabulary and understanding sounds is a social process. One of the downsides of the pandemic is that children’s social bubbles have shrunk and aren’t getting as much interaction,” she says.

Here’s her advice, if you’re all chatted out.

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Talk to your child, not at them. “Research points to talking with your children, not just to them. For a while, we thought it was just ‘talk, talk, talk’ — but we now know children need to be talked with and have opportunities to engage in conversation,” she says.

In other words, you don’t need to keep a running commentary of every cyclist you pass on the way to soccer practice. Instead, ask your child about why they’re excited to play or whom they hope to see.

Such conversations are what promotes children’s language processing skills and learning, she says.

Think quality over quantity. You don’t need to constantly chatter to your child. You’re busy! Instead, pick your moments during dinner, at bath time, or before going to bed.

“This is a key thing for parents to understand: They shouldn’t worry about talking all the time. It’s more important to have the quality, loving moments where you have those little conversations that are important to kids,” Rowe says, when they can talk about their day or think about what they’re excited for tomorrow.

“Parents don’t realize how helpful those day-to-day conversations are, and the more you can get those conversations to be about the past or future, rather than, ‘Hurry up and eat,’ the better,” she says.

Choose your words wisely. Once kids hit toddlerhood, it’s important to use a wide assortment of words and also complex and imaginative ones to tell stories and explain the outside world.

For babies under 12 months, you could simply ask, “What’s that?” and ask them to point out an object in a book. As kids get older, add more prompts: “Why did the lion feel sad? Why did the boy want to visit his grandmother?”

Here’s an easy way to remember it: Simple questions can start with “What” or “Where.” Kids 3 and up can respond to “How” and “Why”? Another helpful tip: After 18 months or so, you can drop the high-pitched, sing-song voice and simple banter.

“It’s more helpful to make your speech complex. The more they know, the better they get” at building vocabulary, she says.

“Our research has shown that it’s not just the amount of words a child hears that drives vocabulary growth but also the diversity of words and the opportunity to engage in interesting back-and-forth conversations with caregivers that serves as a solid foundation for literacy skills.”

Let your preschooler take the conversational lead. If you have a budding prosecutor who asks a lot of questions (I do!), you understand this unique combination of exhausting and charming. While it might be tempting to just say “because” when your kid asks “Why is grass green?” for the 50th time, try shifting the conversation to abstract discussions where they can take the lead. Bring up favorite memories and future activities.

“Those kids are old enough, with language and cognitive skills, to talk about things you did together last week or what it was like when he went back to school in person. Those kinds of conversations that are more abstract, about past and future, are really helpful for preschoolers,” Rowe says. “Studies found that children who have more opportunities to talk about the past and future have better vocabulary skills, narrative skills, and comprehension of complex syntax skills. This oral language development serves as a foundation for literacy.”


Kara Baskin can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.

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