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in a Child's hands

New horizons open to children at Creating Kids day care as they learn sign language

New Haven Register
By Sandi Kahn Shelton
March 16, 1997

Three months ago, when Benjamin Zackin of Woodbridge had his routine 9-month-old checkup, the doctor asked his mother: “Does he say any words yet?”

“Well,” said his mother, Leslie, “he doesn’t say anything. But he can do sign language.”

In fact, even though their parents don’t know sign language, both Benjamin, who is now 1, and his 3 1/2 –year-old sister, Michelle, are avid signers.

They both attend Creating Kids, a child care center on Audubon Street in New Haven, where for several years for several years now children from birth to kindergarten have been shown American Sign Language right along with their regular curriculum. The school has two special needs children, who are being taught sign language to enable them to communicate and all the other children learn right along with them.

"We believe in giving children lots of ways to communicate,” says Sandy Malmquist, director of the center. “We have a deaf teacher, Dawn Hitch, who works with all the children in addition to the children with special needs - and it's amazing to watch how fascinated the children are by learning the different signs. Many of them have gone beyond simply being able to mimic signs made to them, and are now actually fluent in American Sign Language."

Kelly McGuinness, mother of Taylor, 6, and Dylan, 2, says that in their household sign language has been a godsend.

“When Dylan can't make himself understood, Taylor will say to him, ‘Sign it, Dylan,’ and he will and then she can tell me what he wants," says McGuinness. “The interesting thing is that kids understand other kids' signs - even if the signs are more or less invented signs.”

Zackin's favorite story is the day Michelle asked her to sing "Old MacDonald Had a Farm” with her on the way home from child care. Zackin started singing. and after a few verses, said, "Michelle, I thought you were going to sing too."

“I am, Mommy. I’m singing it in sign language,” said Michelle from the backseat.

Solace Bergman, 5, of New Haven, is one of the children who has particularly been drawn to signing. On a recent morning, she and Hitch sat on the floor facing each other and carried on a 10-minute conversation with no words spoken. Periodically, one would sign something that would make the other smile or nod; at one point, they both laughed.

Hitch, of New Haven, who became deaf as an adult and therefore can speak, said that the idea of teaching children to sign is somewhat controversial.

“There’s a big debate raging that says that sign language keeps children from speaking,” she says. “But I think it puts them ahead. At this age, children have so much cognitive ability. For babies, it gives them a way of expressing themselves so they don’t feel so frustrated – and for kids who are verbal, you can see how much they love the playful part of signing. It’s another way of expressing themselves.”

Sivahn Barsade, 4 ½, of New Haven, says she likes signing because it makes it possible for her to talk to her friend, Chauntel Garris, who has cerebral palsy.

Chauntel, 4, is one of the children with specials needs at the center, and Hitch works with her five hours a week, teaching her sign language. Although Chauntel can hear, she isn’t able to say more than a few syllables because of her disability. She is able to make signs, although her muscle development makes some adaptations necessary.  

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