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Sign language for infants: Signing amounts to less chaos in infant room at YMCA Childcare Center

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Sign language for infants: Signing amounts to less chaos in infant room at YMCA Childcare Center
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

By Carolyn Lange

Staff Writer

When meals are served in the infant room of the YMCA Childcare Center, something is missing -- eardrum-breaking noise.

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The typical crying, squawking, grunting and clatter of bowls being thrown overboard that one would expect in a room with half a dozen pre-toddlers had been a daily occurrence until a couple years ago. That's when the teachers in the infant room began teaching the children simple sign language to communicate their needs.

"They were loud," said Donna Brau, director of the center, which is located in the Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services Building north of Willmar. Brau remembers well seeing five high chairs in a row with five infants all loudly verbalizing their wants at the same time.

Now, said Brau, the children can use sign language to tell the teachers when they want another cracker, or if they want milk and when they're all done eating.

"Instead of throwing their empty plate at me, they tell us they want more," said Cindy Wentzel, the sparkle-eyed coordinator for the infant room, who beams with obvious pride and love when talking about her young charges.

The teachers use about two dozen words and signs with the children. "More" is the most common sign and one of the first the children learn, said Wentzel. Some kids are able to use one or two simple signs -- and know what they mean -- when as young as six months. Ten months is more typical, said Wentzel.

Brau said using sign language before children are physically and developmentally ready to use verbal language can reduce frustration for children who know what they want but can't express it. It can also reduce frustration for adults who are trying to figure out what the child wants. "Anything we can do to lessen the frustration is really great," said Brau.

None of the current children in the room is hearing impaired. But about four years ago, one of the children at the center had two grandparents who were deaf. The child had been taught sign language at home. "That's when we started to see it could be done," said Brau.

In 2004, a little girl with Down syndrome started attending the center and the teachers started using sign language to help her. That's also when the teachers started using simple sign language, alongside verbal language, with all the children.

"It's a neat component that's not hard to add to child care," said Brau. The day-care staff has "certainly seen the positive results" for the children and their parents, she said.

Some, like Luke Lammers, have caught on exceptionally well. "He's so intelligent. We'd show him the sign and he'd just do it," said Wentzel. "It's so fun to sign with Luke because he's so excited about it."

The teachers encourage parents to use the sign language at home as well. Some "think it's harder than it is," said Brau, who uses sign language with the young children. "I tell them 'hi' and I tell them I love them," said Brau, using the signs as she speaks the words.

Luke's parents, Russ and Dawn Lammers, have a "cheat sheet" with the signs taped to their refrigerator at home to reinforce what Luke learns at day care. But, Russ Lammers confesses, most of the time Luke is teaching his parents the signs.

Brau said one of the goals of the YMCA center is to make a positive impact on the lives of the children and their families. Using sign language is one way to make that happen, she said.

Wentzel was able to see firsthand how sign language can reduce typical infant squabbles. One day, when her own daughter was attending the day-care center, the little girl dropped a book that landed near another child. The girl, who was almost 1 year old at the time, signed "more book please." The other child picked up the book and gave it to her.

"There was no shouting, no pushing, no fighting," said Wentzel.

Russ Lammers, who works in the Health and Human Services Building and takes his coffee break at the day-care center to "get a daily dose of Luke," said the sign language has been "really helpful for us. We can tell what he wants." The 18-month-old boy has moved out of the infant room and into the toddler room, where he's starting to trade in the sign language for verbal language.

Wentzel said the kids use the sign language "as long as they need to." Some of the children use the sign language as a "tool" as they transition to more verbal language, said Brau.

Teaching sign language to children has involved teaching the teachers too. Some members of the staff have attended special workshops. Jeanne Madsen, a paraprofessional who works at the center, is hearing impaired. Brau has been encouraging Madsen to teach the adults at the center more sign language.

Madsen said she'd rather teach the kids. "You guys, like, forget it," she said, taking a good-humored jab at her co-workers.

The Kandiyohi County Family YMCA day-care center is located in the Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services Building. It is open from 6:45 a.m. to 5:45 p.m., Monday through Friday. The facility is licensed for 64 children. Fees are charged on a daily or weekly basis. Scholarships are available to offset fees.

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Carolyn Lange
A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers county government and regional news with the West Central Tribune.
(320) 894-9750
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