The Talk-Read-Sing program recently installed a sign at the Highland Playground. We sat down with Cindy Louwagie, a Trusted Messenger from Countryside Public Health to learn more about the program, and how it's trying to help parents of young children.

Talk-Read-Sing stresses the importance of parents interacting with their kids, from age 0-3. She explained that there is a significant disparity between the amount of words a kid knows at age 3 between parents that talk to their kids and those that don't, which also correlates with high versus low family income. The kids from higher income families will know about 1200 words by age three, compared to 400 words for kids from lower income families.

"Half of the kids in the U.S. aren’t ready for kindergarten because of their reading comprehension. This can be turned around by just talking to your kids. Talking doesn't cost anything."

There is also a cultural component. She’s had some people question why you should talk to babies? “They don't understand, they don't talk, so why would you talk to them? The reality is that it makes a huge difference. Babies are very smart, so we’re giving them the brain development to capitalize on that."

Reading is another very important branch of the program, because they get the flow of the words even if they don't understand the exact words. “I've seen parents that read to their babies in womb, that will recognize books after they are born, they light up.”

“Reading doesn't cost anything, libraries are all over. Books don’t cost anything unless you want to buy them. You can pick books you like and read to your kids, it will help you be engaged and have fun too.”

The singing part is harder for some people, but babies love it. That’s why the program has baby bags include CDs with rhymes and songs. The bags are free for newborns between January 1, 2018 -January 1, 2019. Some parents are comfortable singing, but not everyone is.

One trend the campaign is trying to address is parents using smartphones and tablets as crutches.

“Kids want you to make eye contact with them. If you’re on your phone, they shut down, and won’t try to engage you because you’re on your phone.

We’re wired to hear before we can see. We can hear in the womb, and our eyesight isn’t very good for the first few months.

Babies love to look at things on a screen because it’s bright and moves, but it doesn’t wire the brain the way it should. There’s research out there that recommends not letting kids have screen time before they are two years old. It’s important to wire the brain first for hearing, then for vision.

It’s hard because an 18-month-old will be engaged by a movie for the whole hour and a half. We have smartphones on us all the time, and it’s shifting attention where parents aren’t engaging with their babies. You see babies waiting for engagement, and parents aren’t getting the cues.”

To help parents get away from using devices, the program sets up environmental props, like the signs at Highland Park and Canby. There are also posters around town – grocery stores, libraries, clinics, parks, anywhere where families go.

Now when kids visit the park, parents read the signs and get question prompts to help them understand the style of questions that make for good conversation with kids.

Louwagie reported that some parents are scared about not making sense. Her response is that your baby doesn’t know the difference. “The only time you have to make sense is when they are teenagers. You can’t talk too much. They love the sounds of words. You won’t even have to teach them, after 12-18 months words will start coming out. I tell parents that you should be there for and talk to your kids. If you don’t talk to them when they’re young, they won’t talk to you when they get to be in middle school and high school.”

The goal of the program is to have it where parents don’t have to be prompted, they are just out and about talking with their kids.

“It’s not about questioning your kid, it’s saying stuff like ‘The grass is green. The squirrel is running over there.’ I don’t want to question or drill the child. Parents don’t know how to get started, but once they get prompts, their brain starts figuring it out.”

From birth, there is a huge amount of growth in the brain developing neurons, This is called neuroplasticity. The brain is able to basically mold into whatever it needs to learn to survive. By the age of 3, the brain will start pruning what isn’t used.

“If the brain is worried about being hungry, that’s the brain’s priority. You’re not going to be able to learn if you’re worried about something else. You want your basic survival needs taken care of so you can focus on learning.”

The Talk-Read-Sing program is a national campaign created by Too Small to Fail. It’s set up as a turn-key operation so cities, counties, and organizations have instructions for how to implement the program.

“We’re fortunate enough that someone from Pact for Families took the initiative to write the grant.”

Louwagie summarized the goal of the program, “I hope the parents will take the importance of engaging with their children and talking with them. reading with them is fundamentally important. If we can lay down the framework for words and vocabulary, we can double their odds of success. It’s not about being perfect, it’s about trying. There’s never a perfect time, life is stressful and busy. This program’s main goal is just to have parents and adults engaging with babies from the time they are born all the way through development.”

To learn more about the program, and find hundreds of tips on how to engage with children, visit TalkingisTeaching.org.