LAS VEGAS -- Children know what they want to say before they can actually say it, according to administrators of a southern Nevada preschool program.
"I've seen a 9-month-old making the sign for milk," said Reigna Blythe, director of a Las Vegas preschool where 177 children are learning how to speak with signals in a program called Talking Hands.
"This is giving them the gift of communication long before they're able to talk," Blythe said.
Talking Hands coordinator Sandy Markham works with four day-care centers in Clark County including Blythe's Lone Mountain Creative Learning Center. She said the key to teaching sign language to toddlers is repetition.
"We incorporate it in lessons throughout the day, and the children do it on a daily basis," Markham said.
She said Talking Hands is geared for all children -- hearing and deaf -- and that it makes learning spoken language easier.
"I have two children and they're both hearing," said Markham, a certified instructor of American Sign Language. "They've both been signing since they were 10 months old. It's really opened up the world for them."
Markham said deaf parents long have known that babies can master finger play before speech.
Now, some day-care centers are integrating signing into their programs with favorable responses from parents.
At the Lone Mountain center, children learn a different letter, number and color each week.
Teachers also have learned to sign with their classes, repeating the signs for "please," "thank you," and "share" throughout the day.
Blythe said she's noticed that classrooms are quieter, misunderstandings between toddlers and caregivers are fewer, and children are enthusiastic about learning what they believe is a secret code.
Christine Pinar said learning sign language has been good for her 5-year-old daughter Kelsey.
Pinar doesn't always understand the signs her daughter makes, but said she's been in situations where knowing it would have been useful.
"We were at a soccer game last weekend and we were told not to talk or yell," Pinar said. "It would have been handy then."
Markham said one challenge in implementing the program is finding learning materials aimed at young children instead of adults.
One tool she uses is called Signing Time, a series of videos made by Salt Lake City mother Rachel de Azevedo Coleman, whose 6-year-old daughter Lucy was diagnosed as profoundly deaf at 14 months old.
Coleman visited a Lone Mountain classroom in December, prompting whispers of recognition from 11 preschoolers who remembered her from the video.
Lucy also appears in the videos, with her hearing cousin, Alex.
"I'm doing this so that people can talk to my daughter," Coleman said. "I'm giving her language to the rest of us."