How finger puppets can help promote early language development in babies

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DENVER— Mary Ann Bash, creator of Parents for Parity and Everyone, Teach One: No More Gap Program has worked for many years with students in difficulty in underprivileged schools.

“There will be up to 30-million-word difference in terms of the amount of language a child has heard at age three,” Bash said. “I don’t want a child having difficulty in school just because the family didn’t know how important and valuable it is to talk to their children before they start school.”

Mary Ann Bash, the creator of Parents for Parity, the Each One program, Teach One: No More Gap and the Finger Puppet Project.

Bash explained that she sees how the 30 million word gap can put children at a disadvantage when they come to school, especially because school can be very verbal.

According to Dr. Gretchen Domek, pediatrician, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and Principal Investigator for the Center for Global Health at the Colorado School of Public Healthtalking with babies as young as two months old can set the stage for future vocabulary growth, school readiness and academic success.

Consider a diaper change, Domek said: If a parent had to say 50 words during each diaper change and they did five diaper changes a day, their baby could hear about 273,750 words after three years. And if a parent spoke while feeding, dressing, bathing and playing with their baby, that baby would be exposed to millions of words.

But for many parents, talking to a baby who won’t be able to respond for several years can be difficult, Domek said.

His suggestion? Parents can use finger puppets to support early language promotion.

Dr. Bonnie Camp, professor emeritus of pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, began using finger puppets in the 1970s to help mothers interact with their babies.

40 years later, the Center for Global Health launched a program on early childhood health and development in Guatemala. Domek and Camp worked together to start a program to introduce mothers of infants to different developmental materials. For two-month-old babies, this material was a puppet.

Dr. Gretchen Domek is a pediatrician, Associate Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Colorado, and Senior Investigator at the Center for Global Health at the Colorado School of Public Health.

About five years ago, Domek explained, they decided to study the use of finger puppets more formally. They have started two pilot studies in Colorado. Domek and Camp gave the puppet to the parents of two-month-old and six-month-old babies and followed these patients using their developmental projections until they were 36 months old.

“At 12 months, if you got the puppet at two and six months, you had better scores on your home cognitive environment, you had better pre-verbal scores, and you had better early receptive language scores,” said Domek. “And if you got the puppet at two months, your social emotional score was better at 36 months.”

Bash, who has worked with Camp for years, was introduced to Domek during Camp’s 90th anniversary. They started talking about how they could apply Domek and Camp’s research in the community.

In 2021, Bash and Domek applied for a grant to develop a team of parents who learned to use finger puppets with their babies and are now reaching out to other parents in the community to teach them as well.

“They learn from us. And then they reach out to their neighbors, to their extended family, to their co-workers who have these babies. And they are the ones who then allow us to expand the reach of our work,” Bash said.

Dr. Gretchen Domek with Dr. Bonnie Camp. Photo courtesy of Dr. Domek.

The team, who are fluent in English and Spanish, reach out to parents in the community and tell them about the benefits of using finger puppets with their babies. They provide bilingual activity sheets that help give parents ideas on how to use the puppets. Team members also have comprehensive parent satisfaction interviews that Domek can use in the clinic to track assessment measures.

Although the project is still in its infancy, Bash said the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive so far. Using finger puppets has allowed parents to become more comfortable singing, telling jokes, changing voices and pretending to be different characters with their babies. Over time, some parents stopped using finger puppets altogether because they were comfortable enough to talk to their babies without the puppets.

“The baby doesn’t really care about the puppet, although the color and the movement grab their attention,” Bash said. “It’s the voice of the parents. That’s what they like.


Theresa Ho is the RMPBS Kids Digital Content Producer. You can reach her at [email protected].

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