12/06/2016 05:57 EST | Updated 12/06/2016 05:57 EST

Small Talk Makes A Big Difference In Your Child's Learning

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Altocumulus Clouds

Recently, I described a charming conversation I accidentally overheard to a friend and we spent several minutes discussing what made it unique. Parents of young children often bond over activities because we want to provide opportunities for our children to learn skills they might not have a chance to otherwise.

Many dread the inevitable, "I'm bored!" when there is a lull in activity, so they spend much of their time in a haze of outings and playdates. Why not slow things down and enjoy some conversation? It could do a world of good.

The conversation I was fortunate enough to overhear took place on a busy street in downtown Toronto between a young girl and a man I assumed was her father. We were headed in the same direction and the girl became interested in the puffs of smoke she saw in the sky.

"They look like clouds!" she exclaimed enthusiastically.

"Yes and how are they different?"

"They are little. Maybe they are coming from a plane," she mused aloud.

"See the line across the sky up higher? That's from a plane. I think these little ones are coming from the chimney on top of the building."

"They look like little puffy clouds."

"Yes. There are different kinds of clouds. What kind do you see in the sky over there? Do they look like the kind that bring rain?"

It was simple, charming and epitomized the difference small things can make in a child's learning. I estimated the child's age between 4 and 6 and here she was enjoying a one to one lesson to improve her observation skills.

She was also being taught to think and deduce in addition to basic nephology. It impressed me so much I wanted to take note of it as an example for the teacher candidates I teach. It did not require any expensive equipment, entrance fee to a special exhibit or special plans. It did, however, require skill from her caregiver.

It was just talking, but imagine the advantages a child who engaged in these kinds of encounters day after day, year after year gains over one who does not.

That's why I was intrigued by a study from the April 2016 issue of Pediatrics that was reported in my ScienceDaily feed. It found that the simple strategy of teaching parents playful, age-appropriate learning activities that they could do with their children resulted in astonishing gains.

"By age 3, the study found children from disadvantaged backgrounds had cognitive and psychomotor development scores 'statistically indistinguishable' from children in the study who were in high-resource families."

The researchers were excited that this type of strategy could help break the cycle of poverty because closing the achievement gap would mean these children could do better in school. Doing better in school usually results in better paying jobs. It was also simple. It did not require fancy equipment, was relatively inexpensive, and empowered the parents to help their children.

Some caregivers, like the father I overheard on the street that day, seem to instinctively know how to interact with children in a way that furthers their cognition. I'm not sure how he came to possess these skills but his child is sure to benefit from them. The study suggests that all parents can be taught these skills.

Dozens of other children and their caregivers could have seen the same scene as they walked down the street that day. Most probably never looked up. The few who did see the puffs of smoke probably didn't engage in the same rich conversation.

Imagine what could happen if, instead of frantically trying to find another place to go or another activity to do, more children and adults slowed down and started to enjoy simple, playful, age-appropriate learning activities and conversations?

What if a child's parents, grandparents, caregivers, even older siblings learned how to listen carefully and help that child learn to observe and think and question? It would be the beginning of something very significant.

Catherine Little is a Toronto-based educator and consultant who writes about education, parenting and diversity issues. Read her thoughts on The importance of "wow" in learning.

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