But they can’t talk! Programming tips for pre-verbal children

One of the most common concerns from educators when they find they will be working with children under the age of two years is how they will follow children’s interests and plan for an emergent curriculum when the children can’t talk, and tell educators what is interesting for them.

Smiling baby with balloon

Here, the thinking of Reggio Emila’s educators might be supportive. Loris Malaguzzi is best known for his instrumental role in creating, developing and refining the Reggio Emilia approach, a child centred way of educating and caring for children which views children as competent and capable individuals with an ability and desire to construct their own knowledge.

Malaguzzi wrote a poem – the Hundred Languages – which talks about the hundreds of ways in which children communicate their ideas, beliefs, interests and desires, all without saying a word.

From the roots of this poem, the pedagogical strategy for the construction of concepts and the consolidation of understandings came about.

Although verbal language and expression is recognised as being very important in communicating with children, there are many other ways of communication.

Babies communicate from birth, and a born hardwired to make connections with their caregivers. They use sounds, such as grunts, cry’s, coos and squeals, facial expressions such as smiles and grimaces, and gestures and body movements, such as pointing, or waving their arms and legs with excitement.

This communication grows when babies see that their actions elicit a response from their caregivers, and they quickly learn to refine their communication skills to work with the adults around them to get their needs met.

Using communication to support programming
Understanding that communication can take place without a word ever being said, how can educators use non verbal communication to program for babies?

When working with very young children in particular, a lot of the focus is on care, and meeting immediate needs for food, sleep and comfort. For infants especially, much of a day in an education and care setting may be taken up with nappy changes, feeding and settling to sleep.

Even in these routine times, however, there is space to make connections.

When changing a nappy, for example, is baby looking up at a mobile? Does baby feel more comforted when they have something in their hands? Are they practicing a new skill, such as rolling over?

When you said “there you are, a nice clean nappy!” did baby smile in response? All of these moments are opportunities for reflection, communication, observation and ideas for next week’s plan.

You might change up the texture of what baby is given to hold – adding something crinkly, or perhaps something smooth? You may sing a different song, or change the mobile hanging above baby’s head.

What can you look for?
Some of the elements an educator may choose to look for, observe, and program about when working with pre-verbal infants and toddlers include:

  • Changes in behaviour
  • Strengths
  • Developmental milestones – such as sitting, walking, wiping their own face etc
  • Interests – what makes their eyes light up? Do they have a favourite toy or meal?
  • Changes in routine – have they dropped a nap? Do they now engage more with stories?
  • Interactions with others – educators, other children in the room, special visitors?
  • Gestures and facial expressions
  • Movements and responses to music and to art
  • Sensory experiences such as engaging with grass, touching different surfaces etc.

While working with children who cannot verbalise their interests may seem a challenge at first, if you take the time to stop and listen, babies have a lot to say!

Further resources:
ECA Learning Hub – Engaging with Babies and Toddlers
First Things First – Mirror Play
ECA Learning Hub – Babies and Toddlers Amazing Learners

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