It’s been a very slow process for me to get around to reviewing the newest Baby Signing Time offerings, Volume 3: A New Day and Volume 4: Let’s Be Friends. It’s not because I didn’t want to; it’s because every time I put the DVD into the player and started to watch it with Nik he would get very upset. Nik, as many of my regular readers know, is a huge fan of Signing Time. He is not, however, a huge fan of anything which remotely smacks of change from the expected routine. It’s one of his non-negotiable autistic traits and we just sort of roll with it as best we can. Some days it’s smooth sailing and others, well…(shrugs shoulders).
As it was Nik had a difficult transition to the “new” Signing Time opening and the “new” format with Hopkins when we bought the first set of videos. We’d been checking them out of our local library; that was a feat since our state library system only has one copy of four different videos in their collection. Yes, that’s right; one copy of each and there’s a very long waiting list.
So, I finally was able to make the time to sit at my computer and watch Baby Signing Time all by myself. Okay, right there is a ringing endorsement, folks! The videos are so good that I was perfectly willing to watch them alone. Of course, I also enjoy watching some of the Disney Channel offerings so maybe that’s not such a ringing endorsement after all. You decide.
I must disclose up front that I watched these videos with a definite bias. I tend to filter many things through the lens of my son’s various learning challenges which include difficulty with fine motor control and difficulty processing a lot of busy or complex visual information. He is very much an auditory and tactile learner, preferring to learn by doing. His first attempts at communication were actually humming the tunes of very specific songs I used to sing to him to do things such as changing his diaper or brushing his teeth. The musical element of the Signing Time videos is sometimes critical to Nik’s ability to learn and recall the signs he has learned. If I hum a snippet of the song relating to the sign he wants to recall he is able to do so.
On the whole, I loved the Baby Signing Time videos. They are very different in tone and feel from the Signing Time series with which we are now so familiar in our house. I will say up front that I won’t buy them for use with my son simply because the transition would too traumatic at this point. However, if I were just starting out with signing and Nik were a bit younger? I’d own them all.
Overall, I think the videos are well structured and geared toward the pre-preschool age group. The overall look of the Baby Signing Time videos is simpler, less active or visually cluttered and the emphasis is on building concepts as well as vocabulary. In the songs, I think Rachel’s signing is more focused on the specific signs being taught. My experience of the songs in the Signing Time series is that they are richer in signing additional vocabulary; they can be a nice way to pick up some new signs as you go. In Baby Signing Time, the simplicity serves a good purpose in keeping it uncluttered or visually uncomplicated for small children who have shorter attention spans and who may not be able to follow along quite as quickly as an older child.
The repetitive vocalization and signing, combined with both real life and cartoon representations, and layered with music, can reach a multitude of learning styles —auditory (both spoken and sung), tactile, visual (both literal and representational images). The introduction of the cartoons interspersed with real life examples can actually help children make the cognitive leap to symbolic representation. This is a very critical step for many non-verbal children as so many early communication systems —especially in schools —rely on some form of picture exchange system.
In Volume 3: A New Day, I think some of the words and concepts may not be as meaningful or motivational to small children. That said it does give parents a way of introducing and layering language to describe a child’s environment. I don’t know that I would expect a small child to tell me about the sun or rain —I know many preschoolers who struggle with some of those concepts; my son can no more tell me what the weather is like outside but he can tell me he wants his book. None the less, I suppose it’s sort of like advanced vocabulary words; nice to aspire to and enough of a stretch to keep advanced learners interested.
I really like how Rachel plays dress up in the different segments. At first, I thought it a bit hokey, but after thinking about it I can see that for many children it can encourage creative play. Also, I think many young children will think it’s silly or funny and that, too, can be a huge reinforcer. Let’s face it; some people remember jokes better than straight facts! I’m not sure which I liked best —Rachel in her giant sunglasses kicking back in the Adirondack chair or Rachel with the bug antennae and being all squirmy and squiggly! It’s very cute.
I found the content of Volume 4: Let’s Be Friends more applicable on a day to day basis at a younger age. I think there were more of the words most commonly used in a daily routine —names of some common foods, how to start to express yourself, opposites, and feelings. I almost wish the two volumes had been reversed. Many children are learning about feelings, foods, and toys before they are going out into the world and learning (or expressing things) about the weather. Really, it’s a minor complaint in the scheme of things as I think all of the material presented in the videos is wonderful and engaging.
Another complaint —and it may have simply slipped past me, though I tend to notice these things more since Nik was born —is that it seemed to me there was significantly less use of overtly disabled children in the Baby Signing Time videos than in the Signing Time videos. I don’t know if this was an intentional choice or if it’s simply the way they were edited. I saw lots of children with Down syndrome but I did not see any children with things like braces or wheelchairs or even any obvious motor impairment. I think it’s important to expose young children —and their parents —to children with disabilities as just part of the normal course of daily living. I know that this is equally important to the folks at Two Little Hands Productions so I was a bit surprised at the omission.
Finally, I do have to say that I have a real love-hate relationship with some of the songs Rachel uses at the end of the videos. I love them because they are wonderful songs rich with meaning. I hate them because they are loaded with meaning for me as a parent of a child with multiple special needs. I cannot listen to “Show Me a Sign” without crying a river. The words remind me of all the things my child is not yet able to express in spite of his obvious intellect and desire to do so. Also, I think knowing a bit of the history behind songs such as “Tiny Hands” makes them more poignant.
The third offering on the DVD I was sent, Elizabeth Barrett Can Read is an inspiring account of a little girl with remarkable communication skills who began reading at the age of thirteen months. It should be noted that her mother, Katy Barrett, is a speech pathologist and that she was not actively teaching Elizabeth to read. Katy acknowledges that communication comes easily for Elizabeth; she states “Obviously, she’s got some special abilities to be able to do this.” Katy also says she believes the visual nature of signing helped Elizabeth connect the symbols (signs) to the letters she saw on screen and to the meaning of the words. I can’t help but wonder, though, if Elizabeth is possibly hyperlexic. Clearly, Elizabeth is a very strong visual learner with an ability to recognize letters and patterns of words and language. While I think Elizabeth Barrett is absolutely not your typical young learner, I think there can be little doubt as to the power of layering language in so many ways. As Katy says, there are so many children who don’t have communication tools and sign language can be a bridge for them.
The nice thing is that it’s never too late to start.
See clips from from the newest Baby Signing Time videos here:
Volume 3: A New Day
Volume 4: Let’s Be Friends
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