It is a dreary Monday morning in Cathays but inside Café Junior, where Maria McGuigan runs sing and sign session, the mood is bright. Just under a dozen toddlers sit on the carpeted floor, with their parents, excitedly waiting for the music to start.
Signing is popular with parents who want to communicate with their children before they begin to speak. The signs are based on British Sign Language and adapted for small hands. They allow children to connect a word they hear to something visual, speeding language development.
“It about encouraging communication,” said Maria, who has been running the sessions for four years. “Babies who sign generally speak earlier and it seems to increase IQ. I meet people who went to my classes. They all say their children are real chatterboxes and are talking all the time.”
This week Maria’s hour-long session started with the Zoo Song, which included lions, spiders, elephants and monkeys. Parents and children also learnt new words, such as hurry up and tidy up, to encourage helpfulness around the house. Each new word, and its accompanying sign, was repeated several times within each song.
One member of the group, Rosie, started classes at six months old. Her mother, Hazel Craven, 33, from Penylan, said her daughter loves the class. “She sits in class beaming,” Hazel said. “She talked really early so I think it helped. The first word she signed was ‘more’, when she was hungry.”
“I think it’s a fantastic idea,” said Rosie’s grandmother, who was visiting from Yorkshire. “It’s particularly helpful when they’re young, they can show what they mean before they can talk.”
Throughout the hour-long session the children remained interested and alert. They responded to cues to tidy away musical instruments and stood up or sat down when asked to. “They are obedient because they can understand what they are being asked to do,” said Maria.
Helen Oldridge, from Birchgrove, Cardiff, has a large family of two boys and two girls. She brought along her youngest son, Efnysien, who is 18 months old. “It’s a chance to bond with your children,” she said. “My youngest daughter Ceridwen is three and a half but she still loves watching the DVD.”
“It’s a social thing too, we meet after coffee,” said Rhian Hopkins, from Church Village, Cynon Taff, who came with her two-year-old son Osian. “He signs a little but I think it’s more about understanding. He loves the Jesse cat song, he goes to sleep to it.”
Teaching signing also allowed Maria time for her own children. She started signing with her second daughter Grace and began her own classes when Grace was two and a half.
“I used to think I’d like to be able to do that myself,” said Maria. Before I had my oldest daughter I was in commercial finance. But after the birth of my second daughter I decided to be a stay at home mum. I set it up around the children, I could be there for them when they needed me.”
At the moment Maria runs seven sessions, some for toddlers and some for babies. “Classes get booked up in advance,” she said. “Most of the business comes in by word of mouth, some people come back with second babies. I don’t advertise really.”