Preschool Director Explains How to Turn Tots’ Chatter Into Conversation

Ask an Expert: Advice for Real Life

Tired of battling a toddler about putting on their shoes or struggling to extract the tiniest detail about your preschooler’s day? Communicating with little kids, who are just learning vocabulary and seeking autonomy, is tough—but there are ways to make it easier.

Jennifer Smallwood-Holmes, director of UMD’s Center for Young Children, a pre-K and kindergarten program in the College of Education that's celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, draws on strategies from more than 25 years of experience to talk to tots more effectively.

It might seem harmless to scroll Instagram while your toddler stacks blocks, but it keeps you from fully engaging. “We tend to ‘uh huh’ children a lot when they approach us, and then eventually they learn we’re not open to them,” Smallwood-Holmes says.

Encourage back-and-forth conversation when your child comes up to you and says, “Mommy, look at this!” Try “Tell me more about that,” or “What did you do then?” or “How did you feel about that?”

Adults often default to “Good job!” when a kid calls to us from the monkey bars or shows us a drawing. But even positive judgment ends a conversation, she said. Instead, point out the muscles they’re using or the shapes they’re making, “which opens kids up more about what they’re thinking or feeling.”

“We tend to say, ‘Would you like to clean now?’ thinking we’re having this nice, social conversation,” says Smallwood-Holmes. “But what a child needs is, ‘Please clean up your puzzle now.’”

Lessons for the Littlest Terps

The CYC has long used UMD's campus as an extension of its classroom, taking its 3- to 6-year-olds on field trips to labs, gardens and construction sites.

“Hands-on experiences are essential for our program. The children can interact, question the experts, and draw conclusions,” said teacher Cecilia Fowler ’03. Read more in Maryland Today.


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