Signing Time Doesn’t Fit the Mold

By Chris Higbee, VP Marketing, Two Little Hands Productions

A recent study out of the University of Washington written by Dmitri A. Christakis and Frederick J. Zimmerman suggests children’s educational videos may do more harm than good. The press release announcing the publication of the study in the Journal of Pediatrics specifically calls out Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby as ineffective. However, the press release and the study irresponsibly ignore the fact that the children’s educational programming market is comprised of vastly different products, which target different audiences and espouse different goals.

As a parent, I definitely understand the medical and scholarly communities’ concerns with overexposing our children to the potential pitfalls of television. Commercials. Sedentary viewing. The alienation of children from the family. The development of inappropriate habits. And I don’t necessarily disagree with Zimmerman and Christakis when they infer that unsupervised and non-interactive viewing can be counterproductive and keep children from reaching their full learning potential.

However, as a developer of children’s educational programming, I take issue with the idea that it’s all the same, causing readers to create incorrect and unfair associations between programs as a result. Here at Two Little Hands Productions, we receive dozens of letters and e-mails each day from our customers expressing their gratitude and sharing their success stories of how their children have grown because of Signing Time. A majority of these letters describe how children of all abilities have overcome language development problems as a result of Signing Time. Parents are often also pleasantly surprised to discover the positive effects of Signing Time on bonding and their personal relationship with their children due to its interactive nature. This anecdotal evidence along with scholarly research on sign language as a communication development device and on audio-visual learning strongly support our belief that certain types of educational content, are best suited to a video format when supervised and watched in moderation; sign language is one of those.

Sign language is a three-dimensional language. While it can be learned from books, the best way to learn sign language is to see it in motion. High quality live instruction is the best method for learning sign language, but video is also an ideal format. In fact, video or television provide something that live instruction cannot; a cost-effective and ubiquitous means of distributing it to children and adults who are interested in learning it but cannot afford or find live instruction. Additionally, learning aids such as music, animation, mnemonics, and interactive activities can be incorporated in to a video or television program much easier and more cost effectively than live instruction. And, as any early childhood professional will tell you, these types of aids have the greatest possible effect on the widest possible audience of children with varied learning styles and abilities. Additionally, for those families and educators who prefer printed media, Signing Time provides board books and flashcards that can be used on their own or supplement the instruction provided on the videos.

Another key teaching aid is interactivity. Children not only internalize concepts better, but they develop stronger communication and interpersonal bonds as they share those concepts with family and friends. Sign language provides a perfect medium for this and Signing Time is designed with this type of interactivity in mind. A child can learn sign language on his own, but what’s the point if he has no one to sign with? As with all forms of useful communication, sign language is a sort of positive epidemic. If it’s useful, it gets spread. Even if a child watches Signing Time alone, she will spread sign language directly by teaching it to friends and family, or inadvertently as curious friends and family see her using it.

Signing Time is designed for co-viewing. Signing Time is meant to be watched together by children and their parents. Even when watched separately, parents and children will use what they’ve learned from Signing Time away from the television to communicate and bond.

Signing Time was designed to teach children AND their families. This includes mom, dad, siblings, grandparents, and caregivers. In fact, Two Little Hands Co-Founder, Rachel Coleman has said regarding the founding of the company “I was tired of my dad, after three years, asking what the sign for ‘Grandpa’ was. When we originally set out to create Signing Time our goal was simple; teach Dad (and others who interacted with my daughter Leah, who is deaf) to sign.” Through the use of original music, clever animation and teaching a fun and engaging language, Signing Time has steered clear of the pitfalls of many other children’s educational programs that keep parents from watching with their kids; it’s not boring or annoying and most importantly creates an environment where children and parents learn together. The other day, I received a call from a convent in Canada where one of the nuns is deaf and the others wanted to learn sign language so they could communicate with her. One of them had seen Signing Time at a childcare center in which she was volunteering and ended up liking it so much, she told the convent and they purchased our entire DVD library over dozens of adult-oriented sign language programs, because it was fun to watch.

Signing Time is being used by state and federal education programs. Many preschools and elementary schools around the country are incorporating sign language into their regular curriculum because it is such an effective tool with young children. A large number have incorporated Signing Time in to this curriculum. Clark County School District in Las Vegas, Nevada has made it part of their ready to learn program for pre through K, while the Hawaii state legislature has put out an official declaration that Signing Time should be considered when incorporating sign language in to any state-approved special education program (http://www.capitol.hawaii.gov/sessioncurrent/Bills/HCR223_.htm). Additionally, we receive emails and letters from families who have been referred to Signing Time by their pediatricians and speech and language pathologists. An example follows:

“I am a Speech-Language Pathologist and have been recommending these videos to all of my clients. Every single one has loved it! I do too! These are the best videos—entertaining, educational, and fun! I stop people on the street to tell them about Signing Time!”

-Laurie Grief
Mesa, AZ

The benefits of Sign Language as an educational aid are well documented by respected scholars. Drs. Joseph Garcia, Linda Acredolo, Susan Goodwyn, Marylin Daniels and many other highly respected researchers have documented the benefits of signing with hearing children. In fact, Dr. William Sears, noted author of “The Baby Book” has said of Signing Time, “We heartily recommend Signing Time books and videos – not only because they are particularly effective and fun, but because they encourage family bonding through communication at an early age.” While this is not the place to cite all of the scholarly work that shows what a powerful influence for good a television show or video series such as Signing Time can be—suffice it to say that overwhelmingly supportive research is out there and can be easily found in any university or public library. However, as with any thing we assign value to, Signing Time’s only real value lies in whether it has been effective in meeting the needs of its viewers. As mentioned before, we are overwhelmed with customer letters affirming that we have, but the best measure of our effectiveness, and this may seem very commercial for the scholars out there, but it is whether customers continue to demand it enough to keep Two Little Hands in business.