Friday, August 10, 2018

Nonverbal Communication

 I  volunteer at the Long Island Children's Museum, a magical place where children actively engage in tons of fascinating and fun exhibits. Week after week, I have a blast interacting with children of all ages and entering their world of wonder, curiosity and play.  This week, I worked in Tot Spot, a play space dedicated to the youngest museum visitors.  While a facilitator conducted conversations with parents in a separate area, I and other volunteers monitored the babies and toddlers.  I connected with two youngsters in particular, a 9 month old girl and a 2 year old boy.  Each of them had some difficulty separating from their parents, but I managed to win them over and they both became attached to me.  The boy had only a few words and the girl was non-verbal.  Yet we communicated with ease and  really enjoyed each other.   That got me thinking about nonverbal communication.  I know it's essential  to children's sense of security and connection, but how specifically does it work?

For the most part, our interactions with others, including children, are natural and spontaneous.  We initiate or respond to conversations and actions freely, without lots of forethought.  So it's difficult to look back and identify the specific behaviors that led to my connection with the two small children at the museum. But that's what I've tried to do because I think it can help us learn a lot.  

I met the girl first.  She was sitting in a stroller while her older sister moved around playing.  I suggested to the mom that she put the baby in the cushioned pit with infant toys.  I got into the pit with her and starting rolling a toy to her, saying "Whee!" We made eye contact.  She grabbed the toy and tossed it.  I used simple language to talk about what we were doing as we continued this game, and that was it!  We connected!  Eventually another baby bumped into her and she cried, so I scooped her up and took her to another area.  That's where I  met the boy.

I sat the baby on the floor right next to me, near some shelves of plastic foods.  I took the foods out one by one, named them, and gave them to her to hold.  As she dropped them, I put them in a basket and she continued to explore.  The little boy was also taking food from the shelves.  I asked his father his name, and used that often in speaking to him.  I made eye contact, and basically narrated what he was doing.  "You're putting broccoli in your basket...Your basket is almost full.."  I challenged him to try new things "Can you walk in the garden?  Would you like to plant the banana..etc." (you had to be there).  Anyway, I continued chatting with him and the baby, and they both played near me.  The baby was bouncing up and down as she grabbed new toys, and the boy and I were laughing as he tried new activities.  

I've identified 5 strategies that helped me communicate with these nonverbal children: 

1.  Enter their world.  With the girl, I got into the infant pit and played with the toys.  With the boy, I narrated his actions and used simple questions to extend his play.  With both, I brought my body down to their eye level.

2.  Make eye contact. Smile. It's magic, it works. 

3.  Keep your body relaxed and your voice pleasant.  I was there to help them have fun and keep them safe.  Both of those messages are relayed by tone of voice and body language.

4.   Treat the child like a communicative partner.   Talk.  Narrate what he's doing.  Ask simple questions.  Wait for an answer, even if it's nonverbal.

5.  Respond appropriately to their body language and facial expressions.  When the baby cried, I moved her to another area.  When she was bouncing and grabbing, I knew she was happy.  When the boy stiffened up after I suggested he try the slide, I let it go.  When he looked for more toys to put on the conveyor belt, I knew he was having fun.

Nonverbal communication is a powerful teaching tool.  Young children are experts at interpreting our body language, tone, and facial expressions.  We don't need to tell them  how we feel and what we value, because they know by watching us.  I recently read that if our nonverbal communication differs from our verbal communication, a child will believe the nonverbal cues.  If we want our children to trust us, we must be genuine with them.  At the same time, by understanding what our children are communicating with their behaviors, tone, gestures, and facial expressions, we can meet their needs for security and connection and open the doors to rich learning and growth.

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