Preschool at Lexington School for the Deaf (Queens)
Age 3 months to 18 months old (Class size 7)
One of the groups of children I had the great pleasure of working with today was a play group at Lexington School for the Deaf. In order for a child to be admitted to the school, parents must come at least once a week with their son/daughter to the Ready to Learn Center on campus. At ready to learn, children ages 3 months to 3 years participate in games and other auditory and visual communication exercises with their parent(s) and a trained specialist. The goal is to provide for a strong foundation of communication and interaction between child and parent. Every Wednesday the children and their parents get together for an hour and a half social where there is play time followed by snack time! This weekly activity allows parents to interact with one another as well as their children with other children. Of the 7 children there (two of which are brother and sister) only 3 of them have Deaf parents.
With the help of the RTL staff, I set up several of my toys amongst other toys and gave a brief informal introduction/presentation. It is sometimes nerve racking for me to sign in front of others when I hardly do it at all by myself, let alone if I ever go home (Both of my parents are Deaf). The parents were eager to participate and went about the toys, mimicking the signs to their children. I spoke to parents at random and found, to my surprise, that those parents who could hear were eager to learn sign language. This is important; if you recall the focus group from yesterday where all the children are implanted with cochlear implants and not allowed to sign at all.
One mother, a graphic designer for Disney, was excited by the idea of the toys. She felt, though, that there needed to be more sound or variation in sound/music. That all senses must be catered to, not just a few. This is on my roster of things to do for the final prototype but it is awesome when other parents suggest the same.
One child liked the blocks alot and emulated both the RTL specialist (Michelle) as well as her mother's signs. Her mother is Deaf and it is interesting and worth noting how supportive a Deaf mother is of her child's physicality and body language. Even hand motions and body language suggestive of sign or an attempt at communicating via sign is promoted and encouraged. Hence, at 11 months, this mother's child knew sign and could tell her parents commands such as "milk", "more", "all done", "dad" and "mom". Talking with her father, I found that many of the first signs him and his wife taught their children (5 Deaf) were basic necessities.
During snack time (I brought blue frosted sugar cookies), the parents discussed what they thought and felt towards the toys. Very honest, let me tell you. Some signs (baby signs) were not the same as American Sign Language (ASL). Deaf parents in particular preferred actual ASL as opposed to teaching baby sign. My parents taught me the same way but as a child, signs are adopted and often mimic baby sign. For example, the sign "apple" is represented by making a hitch hikers thumb and pressing it to the side of your cheek so that your thumb is parallel to the ground; and twisting it (sort of like corking an apple). Many of the children there mimicked this sign but instead of the hitch hikers thumb, pressed a fist to their cheek and twisted it in similar fashion. This may seem not to grave a difference but in ASL the slightest movement or arrangement of fingers on one hand can mean the difference between "starved" and "wish", as an example.
What made me happiest, and I assume the feeling was mutual, is that all the parents were really excited and happy to be participating in my study. Deaf and Hearing, all the parents felt it was important to incorporate sign into their children's toys as well as interactive parts and textures. I have to mention this at least once: Lexington School for the Deaf is a blessing not only for me but for all the kids that go there!
- Babies hands were too chubby/stubby. Signs such as love lost their power and visual appeal because the characters fingers weren't extended (originally fists). This was interesting as it came from a Deaf mother of 2 and her explanation was that the fist were too static and didn't embody the movement of the hands nor the feeling that is love to the best of its ability.
- Introducing soft building blocks to young children (under 12 months) and then an additional line of foam-core soft blocks with multiple shapes. The triangular building blocks were too frustrating for the children to build with and they often gave up immediately.
- Though the children are all Deaf, some have hearing aids and can register sound/vibration. They really loved toys that played music or in toys they could feel the beat of the music or the vibration of a toy part.
- All Deaf mothers said it is important that children learn sign, regardless of hearing ability.
"You can teach your baby how to talk to you in sign before he can talk [vocally]. You establish communication earlier and that is wonderful for any parent."*
(Photographs by Claudia Chwe and Bill)