Tuesday, October 2, 2007

"Hello, Emma? I'm calling about the birthday party?"

Maria has always loved to talk on the phone. Maybe it's because Dad works from home and did the majority of child care while she was little. She's heard him on the phone a lot. Her favorite 'toy' when she was a baby and toddler was her dad's phone. She'd carry the phone around the house and babble into it, having earnest conversations with herself. She got sophisticated enough with it that when she turned it on accidentally, she'd bring it back to Dad and let him turn it off for her. And she only called 911 once.

But we seem to have entered a completely new phase in terms of phone 'play'. She's begun to pretend to call her friends on the phone, and has amazingly sophisticated conversations, complete with appropriate pauses, intonation and hand gestures. (Yes, we all gesture while we talk on the phone.) I feel like time has been fast-forwarded and this is what she'll be doing in just a few short years, only with real friends. She's having amazingly sophisticated 'conversations' on the phone. (The names have been changed to protect the innocent.)

"Hello, Emma? I'm calling about the birthday party? (Pause)
Are you coming to my party today? (Pause)
That's great. We're having a bear cake and ice cream. (Pause).
Well, you're coming from the other side of the river, so you'll have to go over the bridge and then take the highway. (Pause).
And have you talked to Colin? Is he coming too?"

And then she'll go off and wrap 'presents' inside her blanket and ask us to come 'blow out' the pretend candles. And then open her presents.

I'm both amused and amazed at her conversations and scripts. It's not social behavior she's seen modeled by us very often. I don't talk on the phone much, and Dad talks for business. And yet somewhere, she's learned the scripts for this kind of phone conversation.

And in learning this kind of script, she's making important developments in her language. We all have scripts for the things that we do frequently, such as ride the bus, order food in a restaurant, buy and pay for groceries, playing board games, or other frequent activities. Having a script helps organize the events in our minds. For children, learning scripts is important for both language development and social interaction. The script can help them practice responses and become familiar with the language expected in different situations. Using scripted language helps your listener know you're on the same page, and smooths interactions as you go through your daily life.

But scripts can do more than that. They also make it possible for a child to expand and extend their language in new directions or to new levels of complexity. By using a "script" and repeating the same play scenarios over and over (sometimes much to a parent's distress), a child can hold the context of the conversation constant. Knowing the context and the flow of the play can free up attention to listen to what other people are saying, to formulate new sentences and to keep the interaction flowing.

So, the next time your child plays the same game for the umpteenth time, listen hard to the language they are using. You may find yourself surprised that while the game stays the same, the language does not.