Encouraging conversation – so important to development. Why and how

Encouraging conversation – so important to development. Why and how

Written by Marianne Schriever and Dr Tessa Grigg


Is the art of conversation still relevant while living in a tech-savy world? We only need to travel on public transport to see how many people are engaged with their phones. In a digital age many parents find even their youngest children distracted by all forms of technology and conversations are limited, yet for young children having consistent, meaningful conversations with those around them is of the utmost significance. With the holiday season just around the corner, there may be time to make quality conversing a priority.

Why is conversation important?

  1. Language Development: From birth children are surrounded in a world full of language. As they begin to develop their own oral language, the influence of the adults around them is imperative. Hearing others speak begins the process of learning how language works. They learn phonemic, semantic, syntactic and contextual awareness. The development of learning to listen and speak is crucial not only for academic learning, but also for social and emotional growth.  Conversations are an important way to enlarge vocabulary.
  2. Relationship-building:Children are learning about life every single day. One important lesson is how to begin and maintain healthy relationships. Whether being a parent, family member, teacher or friend to a child, your relationship serves as a model for future relationships. Engaging in rich discussions teaches a child how to be an active participant in life.
  3. Discovery of the world: Talking with a child creates an opportunity to reveal something to them about the world around them. For example, while going shopping, conversation might reveal about how food is prepared, by finding appropriate ingredients for a recipe or how to create a shopping list and follow through with it or even learning about different cultures.  For a child, everything is a lesson and conversations are one vehicle in their learning process.
  4. Reasoning: Conversations encourage children to think about new ideas, develop questions and make decisions. It is so important to encourage children to think and make decisions for themselves. This later helps children become more independent and self-sufficient. The education system has a greater focus in this area now.
  5. Understanding diversity:Young children are naturally self-centered. They see the world as revolving around them. Through interaction with different people, children learn that there are many different kinds of people with differing ideas, life styles and opinions. They then begin to develop understanding and acceptance of differences. Rich and frequent conversations with a wide variety of people can even teach a child how valuable diversity and discussion can be, as we each have something special to contribute.

What are the elements of conversation?

Conversation has to do with curiosity about life, about people and making a connection. It is about making personal explorations of another person through words and listening. We spend the time learning their likes and dislikes, their thoughts and opinions about things. It is more intimate and shows a fascination of things, people and the wonderful mystery of life. Conversation includes speaking, listening and thinking.

Children and even some adults often need help:

  • Sticking to the topic: A conversation has a natural and organic progression that works best when it is not forced or dictated but followed. Sticking to a topic means discussing a subject through to a natural stop point or digression. Sometimes sticking to the topic means accepting when and where it changes.
  • Waiting for a turn versus listening: Often people stay quiet just long enough to let the other person get their thought out without actively listening. While someone else is talking, listening intently makes for clear understanding.
  • Listening effectively: Enough cannot be said for listening. Be a good listener, as listening is the key to first class conversation. Ask interesting, thoughtful and thought provoking questions. Focus on the speaker and nod your head to show the speaker that you are interested. Use sounds of encouragement, like “hmm” and “uh ha” at the appropriate moments, so you show how to be attentive. Listening to another person with the intent to gain understanding is a major component of conversation.
  • Being natural: Strive to be yourself, conversing is a two-way street, you want the child you are speaking with to feel at ease and comfortable. Be open and engaging and generous.
  • Tailoring the conversation: This means listening for the child’s interests. This helps you to steer the conversation to areas they are comfortable and enthused to be talking about. Think before you speak.
  • Elaborating:Adding details and description to conversation makes it more interesting and clear for the child.
  • Using body language: That and the tone effect a conversation greatly. Eye contact and using an appropriate tone helps determine how the child’s point of view will be interpreted.

How can we engage a child in conversation?

The most important goal is to elicit talk from the child. Look for every opportunity to engage the child in conversation and encourage the child to initiate conversation.

Take time: Spend time with your child.  Set aside times when conversing is top priority and show a comfortable attitude toward it, so it flows easily for them. This always gives the child a sense of security helping them open up about to themselves and ideas of Interest. Talk about your day and ask about their day as well.

Talk and ask open-ended questions: Talking to your child is a great way to find out more about what is happening in their life and mind. Questions might include “What was the best part of your day?” Why did you enjoy playing with your friend?” “What new thing did you learn today?”

Ask for an opinion:  A child has a mind of their own! If you ask for an opinion, on any topic they has even the slightest background knowledge of, they will answer with frankness and thought.  A child needs to feel included and needs to feel that their opinion is valued and important.

Talk about their own and others feelings: Children learn a lot by talking about conflict, as well as emotions like jealousy and sadness. Studies have shown that children as young as age three, whose parents talk with them about emotional states, have less behaviour problems up to eight years later.

Ask for explanations:  A child often talks on a variety of subjects at any given moment. A conversation can be started by simply asking “Why?”  For example: If while riding in the car a child says “Look! I can see the sun is setting!” Simply ask them “Why?” and the answer may delight or even surprise!

Tell stories: Storytelling is a wonderful way to practice talking and listening. Share a story with your child and then let them tell you one! This can be done anytime, anywhere and never gets old or boring. Can you tell a true story? A make believe one? A holiday one? A number story? The list goes on! Children love hearing stories about when their parent or grandparent was young.

Play a game: Games like “Would you rather be invisible or be able to fly?” Language games such as this one are easy, fun and free. Another game is ‘finish the sentence’ – “If I were a bear, I would….”. You could also make a ‘story dice’ or ‘picture cards’, these are a great way to develop fun, spontaneous stories.

Role-play with your child. Tell your child you are going to start a conversation and that he should respond appropriately. For very young children soft toys could be used. Take turns greeting each other and asking questions. Make sure they know how to maintain eye contact when speaking with someone.

Use different settings: Introduce your child into different settings in which they can use conversational skills. For instance, ask them to answer so they can practice ‘phone answering’ skills. They may need some guidance and encouragement, but through practice they learn.

Model conversation: Model appropriate conversational behavior around your child. Allow them to observe you having conversations and be aware of how you sound.

The GymbaROO-KindyROO sensory-motor program uses a range of techniques to provide food for good quality conversations. Our visualisation themes extend vocabulary and the topics are carefully chosen to expand discussions. The movement-based activities also provide conversational opportunities which can include emotional language, memory and visualisation skills. GymbaROO-KindyROO is so much more than jumping and sliding down slides!

Marianne Schriever is a past School Principal and neuro-educational consultant for GymbaROO–KindyROO

Dr Tessa Grigg is a University lecturer and Research and Education Manager of GymbaROO-KindyROO