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Reminiscing can boost language development in preschoolers

Every parent wants to raise a bright and curious kid, and the good news is, everyday moments hold surprising power when it comes to shaping their intelligence. 

Researchers from Florida Atlantic University have been exploring how different activities, from playtime to bedtime stories, can influence a child’s language development in fascinating ways.

Focus of the study

The researchers looked at three common activities: reading books, sharing memories, and playing with toys (LEGO). They chose families with young children (3-5 years old) in Denmark and observed how parents talked during each activity. 

The experts recorded the conversations and analyzed them to see how complex the words were, how open-ended the questions were, and how well parents responded to their children.

The researchers expected that reading and reminiscing would lead to richer conversations than playing with toys, because they involve more storytelling and reflection. The goal wasn’t just to see how conversations differed, but also to understand how each activity helps or hinders language development. 

Type of activity matters

The experts found that parents use more complex and descriptive language when reading and reminiscing compared to playing with toys. This means they ask more “what/who/where” and “why/how” questions, which encourage longer and more detailed responses from children.

Reading and reminiscing help children learn more vocabulary and sentence structures. These activities expose children to a wider range of language in a natural and engaging way.

Parents of all education levels benefit from these activities. While education might play a small role in how parents talk, the type of activity has a bigger impact. 

Playing with LEGO was least engaging

Building with LEGO involves hands-on activities, and not as much back-and-forth talk. The study found that playing with LEGO wasn’t as good as other activities for encouraging parents to use rich language with their children. 

When playing with LEGO, the focus might be on completing a specific project, leading to more instruction-like talk (“Put this here”) instead of open-ended questions and rich descriptions.

This suggests that LEGO play led to less stimulating conversations and potentially less educational interaction for the children. Another key finding was that parents used more “labeling” (describing actions and objects) when reminiscing, but less when playing with LEGO. Activities like remembering old stories together can lead to more descriptive language, which is important for children to learn new words.

Impact of parents’ education level 

While parents’ education level somewhat impacted how they spoke, the activity context had a bigger effect. Even highly educated parents used simpler language during playtime. 

Interestingly, the researchers found that parents with higher education tend to have more in-depth and detailed conversations with their kids when reminiscing. They ask more open-ended questions, explain things in detail, and encourage their children to think and talk about their feelings and thoughts about past experiences.

A unique opportunity 

Reminiscing offers a unique opportunity for both cognitive and emotional development. It helps kids learn how to tell stories, understand cause and effect, and even develop empathy by thinking about their feelings and reactions during past events. Parents with higher education might be more aware of these benefits and use reminiscing as a teaching moment more often.

Additionally, the researchers found no significant difference between how moms and dads talk to their children, regardless of the activity. This challenges the idea that gender plays a major role in shaping parent-child language interactions.

Key takeaways

Activities like reading books together and reminiscing about fun memories are powerful tools for language development. 

“I would suggest to parents that it’s not just important to spend time with your children. What you’re doing when you’re spending time with them also is important,” said study senior author Professor Erika Hoff. 

“It’s good to carve out some time just to have a conversation. If you like reading books, read books, if you would rather talk about planning the future or talking about the past, do that. Make time to have conversations with your children.”

These activities naturally encourage parents to use richer language, asking more engaging questions like “what happened next?” and “how did you feel?” This exposes children to a wider range of vocabulary and sentence structures, building a strong foundation for their own language skills. 

Broader implications 

The experts warn that activities like remembering past experiences, though helpful, may accidentally make the gap between children from families with different education levels wider if not adjusted carefully. 

This means we need different ways of doing these activities depending on the parents’ education level. It is important to make sure these activities don’t make the existing differences in language learning even bigger.

“Reminiscing is good, but it’s not a magic bullet that closes societal and educational gaps. The applied motivation behind our line of research is to find ways that will close the gap in the language experience of children from more advantaged and less advantaged families,” said Dr Hoff. 

“Of course, it’s good to find activities that enrich all children’s language experience, and all children will benefit from such experiences. However, such activities can’t be expected to eliminate all differences in children’s experience.”

The study is published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology.

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