When it comes to communicating with kids, there are two kinds of chatterboxes. The first is the little human talking machine and the one we're probably most familiar with–the enthusiastic toddler or preschooler, with no 'off' button, who talks and sings 24/7, and the second is a cardboard 'chat-in-a-box' (or chatterbox/story box), which is a shoe box or similar that contains things of interest, such as objects to encourage conversation. Given the second definition, creating, encouraging and spending time with a chatterbox can be heaps of fun.
Most kids enjoy a chat. For them, chatting to an adult is one-on-one time, and as we have probably discovered by now, if someone is giving us their undivided attention, we're encouraged to seek out their company again and again. It's nice to feel important, and even nicer to feel that what we have to say is important to someone else.
When we talk to kids in particular, especially about things they find interesting, they're usually switched on to the conversation and want to know more. Whether bees have elbows, or why butterflies have wings can engage them for as long as it takes for this new bit of information to be absorbed by that wonder-filled sponge, otherwise known as a young child's brain.
When little kids communicate, they usually know what they're saying and what it is they're trying to say to us. We, on the other hand, are sometimes left with a string of gobbledegook, and often with absolutely no idea of what they're on about. But for those of us who've decided to learn a second language, we know communication isn't always easy. At least as adults, we're aware that grammar, phrasing, verbs and present tense all exist. But imagine how difficult it is for little kids who have no idea what all this means and are pretty much reliant on their developing skills at listening and ours at repetition.
Children want to communicate, understand and be understood. As kids get older, language is a major key to learning. The ability to communicate helps kids establish and maintain relationships with significant adults and other children, as well as helping them to fit in, and be an active part of their world.
From babyhood, we can encourage our little ones by talking to them constantly. Maintaining eye contact, we can encourage vowel sounds such as 'a', 'ee', 'ooh' as well as consonants–vowel sounds such as 'ta', 'boo', 'see'. Songs and nursery rhymes help to emphasise the rhythm and patterns of speech, as do clapping games, and playing little fun games with fingers.
For babies and toddlers there are plenty of board books (and household items) for counting and identifying colours, animals and objects. As parents and carers we can continually add to their stockpile of words and broaden their knowledge of language by including a word into a sentence...."yes, I see the dog...he's brown and he's running on the grass."
Well before they're able to talk, most young children enjoy being read to. Reading gives us the opportunity to raise or lower the pitch of our voice, use different voices for different characters, and emphasise the sounds of words. Books with pictures help toddlers to identify words.
Once a toddler begins to use words such as under, up, in and out, combine these words with fun activities that include putting toys in, out, under or on. Most toddlers will concentrate on a game for a while, but then their world might evaporate into tears of frustration or they may fall out with a playmate and there's instant meltdown. It's distressing for them, but it gives us the opportunity to also use words to describe what's happening and words for how they feel. Learning an emotional vocabulary that includes words like 'happy' and 'sad' is important at this age.
Most kids in this age group are right into communicating. Daily activities are now great opportunities for conversation starters. Wherever possible, it's important for us as adults to give kids of this age group our undivided attention when they're talking to us, and for us to make sure they're paying attention when we speak to them.
Kids of this age are able to follow directions, give directions, find clues, identify categories and groups of things, and predict what might happen next. Helping build their vocabulary now becomes a lot easier, as we can use new words together with their definitions. Kids this age can understand the use of words in humour and they enjoy silly rhymes and even sillier jokes.
Making a cake, helping around the house, shopping for groceries and being responsible for chores are all great opportunities for kids to learn about concepts such as heavy, big, deep, many, narrow, square, round or long. These activities also provide heaps of opportunities to talk about on, off, first, second, cold, hot, right, left.
Communication for kids this age can still require a bit of patience on our part. Speech can be tricky and every child develops communication skills at their own unique rate. Encouragement, praise and acknowledgement are always the way to go, regardless of a child's level of development.
A chat-in-a-box (or story box) is fun to create. Cover a cardboard box (a shoe box is ideal) in attractive paper and then decide on the theme for the box. A 'naturebox' can contain objects such as shells, stones, leaves or gumnuts; a 'storybox' can contain pictures, photos, puppets, cut out words or a favourite story book; a 'workbox' can contain small plastic farm animals, toy trucks, diggers, trains and tools.
Making a chat-in-a-box is something that kids can help with. They might like to decorate the paper to cover the box, or make a special box to take to grandmas, or on holidays. Lifting the lid on a chatterbox should ideally only be done when an adult is present, so that the box remains a chatterbox and doesn't become just another toy box.
The exciting thing about a chat-in-a-box is that kids can have more than one. In fact, they can have as many as they like to help you make. They're a great way to encourage conversation as kids have to identify, select, explain, assume, remember, match, describe and imagine...and they have to find the words to tell you all about it.