By Alice Gall
When I was a couple of years old, my mum took me to playgroup. That was all. There was very little else on offer, and the incredible range of classes now available to our babes and toddlers was unheard of. My little boy James arrived just over two years ago and I was thrilled with the number of playgroups and activities available to us in Perth. I immediately signed up for, well, everything.
However, James and I were late to the Sing and Sign party. I had heard of Sing and Sign, but didn’t really understand what it was all about. Sing and Sign is up there with baby yoga, heading the list of baby classes guaranteed to make the grandparents exclaim, “You’re doing what?!”
Little did I know that Sing and Sign has been on the go since 2001, and has established an army of fans, ready to shout its praises from the rooftops. One of my earlier misgivings had been that I wanted James to learn to talk, not sign. But the two are complementary. Babies use gestures to help them communicate, allowing them to express their needs more clearly. Music can facilitate their natural ability to learn new signs. And signing is especially helpful in reducing that oh-so-familiar build-up of frustration, caused by mum and dad not understanding what baby wants.
You can take your baby to a sing and sign class when they are just six weeks old (Sing and Sign Babes). There is a Stage 1 class for ages 6 months to around 14 months, and Stage 2 for 14 months and over. Classes are small and social, and available weekly in both Perth and Dundee. Older (well-behaved) siblings are welcome to come along too. But moving onto the most important part – what is Sing and Sign actually like?
James and I jumped straight into Stage 2, as he was around 16 months old, and we signed up for a twelve-week block. Now, some toddlers are gregarious wee characters, ready to throw themselves into every new thing. Others, like James, possess a very sensible wariness of the world and all these crazy people in it! At our first Sing and Sign class, James took one look at the handful of strangers in the room, buried his head on my shoulder, and refused to emerge for the remainder of the class.
Signs are straightforward to learn, and are always accompanied by the spoken (or sung!) word. But never fear. Our teacher, Katrina Grieve, has that invaluable ability of treating each individual child in her class as exactly that – an individual. Is your wee one a tearaway? That’s fine, they are given the freedom to roam the room, interact, dance and shout (within reason…) If your toddler is more like mine, Kat will gently persuade them to join in the fun.
The classes consist of a mix of songs, with key words highlighted using the appropriate sign. The songs are specially selected to be relevant to our children’s world, often featuring food, drink, favourite animals, bath and bedtime. Signs are straightforward to learn, and are always accompanied by the spoken (or sung!) word. Incidentally, don’t be concerned if you’re not Mariah Carey. You may not hit all the right notes, but your number one fan isn’t going to mind.
‘Jessie Cat’ features every week in Stage 2: this black-and-white cuddly cat has her very own songs and games and forms part of the familiar class routine. One of the aspects of Sing and Sign that I have appreciated most is its emphasis on sharing. Jessie Cat is cuddled by each child, who then passes Jessie to the next child. It’s sometimes difficult, but such good practice, when you’re small and you consider everything you like as “Mine!”
Much excitement always follows the appearance of the bag of shakers, rattles and tambourines. As well as amplifying the fun, I love the way the children are encouraged to tidy up afterwards. James diligently trots over to Kat to hand back his shaker…. I dream of such compliance at home. A ‘surprise’ bag of objects is used to prompt further songs, and each class finishes with the toy box – that means free play (and sharing!) for the kids, and a gossip for the adults.
James, after his hesitant start, has blossomed at Sing and Sign. We signed up for one term and stayed for a year. His confidence has grown and his language is coming along beautifully. I treated James to a CD of his favourite songs - a range of DVDs, CDs, and of course Jessie Cat herself are available to purchase. James has since developed a high-pitched warble (imagine a small animal squeaking) and I frequently hear drifts of “Wash Your Dirty Hands” and “When We Go to the Zoo” throughout the house.
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