Friday, December 11, 2009

Raising Word Connoisseurs

I’ve just returned from a two-day silent retreat on the Hudson River. I try to do this once or twice a year. Every time I go, I’m amazed by how few words we really require. I was thinking, too, about very young children who do not yet have language, but who still manage to communicate effectively. They reach for a bottle, push away a spoonful of peas, and hold up their arms when they want to be held.

What a sense of accomplishment they must feel when they can name things—a bottle, a blanket. And then to be able to call out for Mama, Papa, Grandma and their big brother or sister—and to point to themselves and say their own names! The world is theirs for the asking! All that time they were wordless, they were extremely watchful. Once they begin to speak words, it can feel like a current of electricity has been unleashed. They’re sharing all they’ve gleaned in those months of silent observation.

Sandra Boynton’s books milk that early knowledge and churn it into humor like butter. She sets up scenes very familiar to toddlers: a barnyard in Moo, Baa, La La La!, a set of clothes in Blue Hat, Green Hat. Then she takes what a child knows and upends the facts in a nonsensical way. While cows “moo” and sheep “baa,” three pigs sing and dance! In a recent blog, I mentioned a discussion with Leonard Marcus in which he described just how early children begin to develop a sense of humor, and how much of a child’s early attempts at humor are playing with what they know in order to make a joke themselves.

All of us have experienced the pleasure of a peek-a-boo game, even before a child has words—they take pleasure in knowing someone is there but pretending to hide. When my niece Maggie was just over one year old, she delighted in the punchline of Sandra Boynton’s book: I would talk to Maggie on the phone, and she wouldn’t say much, but when I asked her, “What do three pigs singing say?” she’d answer, “La! La! La!” During my most recent visit (Maggie’s now two), she was drawing something at a small plastic desk in the living room. I asked her, “Maggie, are you drawing at your easel?” She repeated, “EA-sel” and started laughing. She loved the word. Throughout the day, she’d spontaneously say, “EA-sel” and start laughing. I noticed she picked out other words she’d hear in conversation and collect those, too, like a word connoisseur.

So let’s hear it for humor! Humorous books encourage a playfulness around a child’s early ideas about language and concepts. Once children are engaged this way, the possibilities for expanding their base of knowledge seems limitless. If I had my way, they’d all be word connoisseurs.

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