PEORIA — Before they can wrap their tiny mouths around the words, some babies will tell you exactly want they want — if you know the language.
Abbey Cook has spent the last nine years teaching sign language to children as young as three months old with Communication Junction.
“They can sign before they can communicate verbally because there are so many muscles in your mouth, so it takes a while for those to strengthen and form to make words,” she said. “But your hands, which are also fine motor, you’re able to use them before you’re able to use the muscles in your mouth.”
In the most popular class called “What is your baby thinking?,” children between the ages of three months and three years are taught the signs for the first 100 words that kids typically learn, such as “mommy” and “milk.”
“Families will take that class, two sessions of it, multiple times, and we call that our ‘Sign to Communicate’ class,” Cook said. “We’re teaching vocabulary so that they can communicate their basic wants and needs with you.”
During those classes, the instructor and the parents speak while they sign because ultimately the goal is spoken language, and learning gestures is part of the natural progression to speech, she said.
In the ‘Sign to Learn’ classes, Cook and her three instructors, all of whom are speech therapists, teach signs to children who are already speaking to supplement their communication.
Having additional instructors helps Cook provide a variety of classes, including story-time sessions at local libraries. But when she started Communication Junction in 2009, classes were much more limited.
“I had been signing with my kids so I thought, ‘Well let’s see if other people are interested,’” she said. “I started with one class with three families, one of which was my 5-month-old son and my mom.”
Nine years later, they have 13 classes on the schedule and they all fill up.
After spending years traveling the Tri-County Area to teach, Communication Junction now has a more permanent location with a classroom inside Bushbaby at 1127 W. Glen Ave. in Peoria.
On the wall, a small sign reads “Let Them Be Little,” and the atmosphere of the classes reflect that message.
In an early Tuesday morning class, the little ones were not bound to their parents’ laps, but instead were given room to move about, making friends with their classmates.
Cook incorporated music and rhymes to keep their attention between reinforcing the new signs learned.
While giving updates of their progress, several parents said their children are picking up the signs, but they can take some time to sink in.
“Continue to use the vocabulary at home so when they’re ready to sign, they’ll know the words,” Cook reminded them.
Cook said Communication Junction is working to “demystify the old wives’ tale” that children who learn sign language won’t talk.
“We don’t tell parents ‘Don’t tell them to wave, they’re not supposed to point, don’t play peek-a-boo,’” she said. “Parents are excited when those things happen so they should also be excited when they start communicating. That’s all sign language is — it’s just communication.”
Kelsey Watznauer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kwatznauer.