The pandemic has significantly disrupted children’s normal routines, but a new study suggests that the initial lockdowns of 2020 did not necessarily impede the language development of preschoolers.
In fact, the researchers found there was an unforeseen “lock-in pulse” in young people’s vocabulary growth – possibly because parents were spending more time at home.
Studying families in 13 countries, researchers found that, on average, babies and toddlers made greater vocabulary gains during this early lockdown period, compared to the pre-pandemic norm for young people of their age.
“Our study found no evidence of negative influences of social isolation on vocabulary development in toddlers aged 8 to 36 months during the initial lockdown,” said researcher Julien Mayor, professor of psychology at development at the University of Oslo in Norway. .
There is a big caveat, however, according to mayor and colleague Natalia Kartushina, also from the University of Oslo.
Investigators found no harm among families who were willing to take part in the study – but this group may not represent families as a whole, especially those who are less advantaged.
“We urge caution in generalizing this result to all families, as it is likely that the most vulnerable families did not respond to the questionnaires,” the mayor said.
Diane Paul, a speech-language pathology expert who was not involved in the study, agreed with this caveat.
But she also said the research could reassure many parents.
“Overall, these are positive and very encouraging results,” said Paul, director of clinical issues in speech-language pathology for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.
The results also confirm what is already recommended for parents to nurture young children’s language development: spending time reading together and limiting “passive” screen time.
During lockdown, researchers found that vocabulary growth was greatest in toddlers who had a lot of shared reading time with their parents and less time passively watching tablets and TVs.
“These are suggestions that we would give to all families with young children,” Paul said.
Of course, she noted, the first phase of the pandemic pushed families into a difficult time with schools and daycares closed. Even when parents could work from home, juggling that with childcare was a huge task.
So parents shouldn’t feel guilty if they had to turn to devices more often during this time, Paul added.
In reality, in a second study, the same research team found that babies’ and toddlers’ total screen time increased during confinement, especially when the parents themselves spent a lot of time in front of the screens.
Despite this, there was no evidence that young people’s language development suffered. This may be because of the time spent in other activities with their parents, researchers say.
And screen time isn’t necessarily a negative, Paul pointed out. When young children watch “high quality” content with an adult – talking and interacting – it’s different from sitting passively in front of cartoons.
“We’re not saying never use screens,” she said. “There are just ways to use them better.”
The study, published in the journal Language development research, included more than 1,700 babies and toddlers aged 8 months to 3 years. The United States was among the 13 countries represented.
Parents completed standard vocabulary checklists on how many words their child understood or said, at the start and end of the first lockdown in their respective countries. They also answered questionnaires about how often they and their child engaged in various activities during the lockdown, including reading together, outdoor play and structured play.
Overall, the children in the study acquired more words than expected, according to population norms for young people their age. And the more time they spend reading with their parents, the greater those gains.
“This highlights the tremendous impact of shared book reading in building a child’s vocabulary“said the mayor.
Shared reading, says Paul, is more than just reading a story to a child. It means pointing to pictures, asking questions and interacting in other ways that help young people learn to understand and use language.
“It’s time spent together,” Paul said, “with contributions from parent and child.”
The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association has more on child language development.
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