WILLMAR -- At 15 months, Alyssa Peterson is rapidly building up a vocabulary.
She can say "milk," "more," "please" and "all done" -- all in sign language.
It has gone a long way toward helping her parents, Heather and Micah Peterson, understand her needs and wants.
"I had no idea that it would be that successful a communication tool," said Heather Peterson. "It cuts down on a lot of the frustration."
Alyssa is learning American Sign Language at the day care center of the Kandiyohi County Area Family YMCA, where it has been taught to infants for the past six years.
Even before they're old enough to be verbal, young children are capable of learning how to sign and express what they want, said Donna Brau, director of the YMCA's child care program.
"Children in this age group are really craving connection with adults. This is a prime time to teach basic words," she said. "There are some basic needs that they can tell us what they want."
On a typically busy morning, it's a handy skill to have for Ronna Schueller, coordinator of the infant room, and assistant teacher Tracy Dokken.
They talk and sign as they play with the children and hand out snacks.
"Play?" Schueller invites them, her thumb and little finger extended.
When she asks a little girl, "Do you want some more milk?", she gets a response in sign language: "More."
A 10-month-old signs "done" when she's finished with her milk.
"It's really fun to see how quickly they catch on," Brau said.
"The excitement that it brings -- it's like a baby's first step," Schueller said.
She and Dokken often see the children in the infant room signing to each other as well. "They even sign each other's names," Dokken said.
Because motor skills develop sooner than verbal skills, most children are capable of learning sign language before they're ready to speak, Brau said.
The cause and effect of being able to express what they want -- another cracker, for instance -- and getting the desired result not only reinforces the benefits of communication but helps forge trust and connection with the adults in their world, she said.
The years from birth up to age 5 are among the most critical in a child's development, Brau said. "They learn to trust adults at that age. This is really where all of that begins. Once their basic needs are met, it opens the doors to all sorts of other connections."
During these early years, small children are "sponges," she said. "The neural connections in their brain are just firing all the time."
It's been amazing to the Petersons to see how quickly Alyssa has been learning to express herself in sign language.
"I really was surprised. It seemed like overnight she picked it up and was communicating," Heather Peterson said. "She calls our dogs in sign language. It just astounds me."
Being able to communicate with their daughter in sign language has cut down on the guesswork and made it easier to respond to her needs, she said.
"I didn't realize kids knew what they wanted," she said. "They know what they want a lot earlier than they can tell you."
Parent involvement is a key ingredient, Brau said.
"You've got to educate the parents as well as the children," she said.
To help parents understand the sign language their children are learning at the Y's day care program, lesson plans are sent home each week, featuring a sign-language word of the week.
A grant also allowed the purchase this year of a set of picture books that teach sign language.
As these youngest children start to develop verbal skills, they rely less on sign language -- although the Y day care program continues to use it as a transitional tool for children in its toddler and kindergarten rooms, Brau said.
Some researchers have suggested that the use of sign language early in life might lead to delays in verbal language development, but the staff at the Y have seen no indication of this, she said. "In fact, we see reduced frustration. We're not doing it exclusively of the spoken word. It's like living in a bilingual community."
Far from being a fad, the child care staff have discovered over the past few years that it's a valid way for young children to communicate, Brau said.
"They can tell us if they want more milk or more food or if they want to get down from the chair," she said. "American Sign Language is another step in connecting with the adults in their lives. It adds that sense of security and that sense of knowing we're here for them. I feel like we'll always be teaching it."