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Five month old Ivy Hunter in class for the LENA Start graduation day, Feb. 12, 2018. Ivy is the daughter of Isaiah Hunter and Teresa Hunter. LENA Start is a program that teaches parents ways to talk with their babies, like talking about ingredients and instructions for cooking. Research shows it helps children to hear words when they are babies, even if they can't understand or talk back. (L. Todd Spencer/The Virginian-Pilot/TNS)

L. Todd Spencer

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Teresa and Isaiah Hunter admit some of the activities they’ve done with their first child might seem odd.

They have discussed cooking instructions with Ivy. Even spoken a foreign language to her.

And she’s only 6 months old.

“At first I thought it was a little weird because she’s a baby,” Teresa Hunter said.

But it turns out it’s not so odd to talk to babies as if they’re grown-ups.

Many experts say that the most critical progress in a baby’s brain occurs in the first three years. They add that talking regularly to children during that time helps with development.

With that in mind, Virginia Beach has become one of a handful of cities across the nation participating in a program called LENA Start. The class aims to educate parents on ways to keep up regular conversations around their toddlers.

The Hunters were one of nine families to graduate in February from that first Virginia Beach class. Two more classes begin this month. Classes are free but limited to about 18 families on a first-come, first-serve basis.

“Parents have the power,” Teresa Hunter said.

LENA is a Colorado-based public charity that aims to accelerate language growth in young children. In 2015 and 2016, it selected five cities to debut Start, which uses classes and technology to analyze how much parents are talking with their children and gauge the responses they’re receiving.

Last fall, the organization expanded Start to 11 new cities. Virginia Beach is the only one from this state.

GrowSmart, a collaboration between Virginia Beach city departments, schools and community organizations, is spearheading the program. A partnership with United Way of South Hampton Roads provided $20,000 to pay for startup materials and training, said Barb Lito, GrowSmart’s coordinator.

On a recent Monday night, about a dozen parents filled a room at the Williams Farm Recreation Center off Newtown Road. Most were mothers, though a handful of fathers were there as well. Some let their babies sit in strollers, while others like Teresa Hunter stood and held them in their arms.

Food was the main topic at this session. Teacher Leah Williams, who is on the GrowSmart team, asked the parents what they could talk about while preparing and eating meals.

Categories like fruit, vegetables or meat, one parent answered.

Taste — like sweet or sour — said another.

Another brought up how food is handled — whether it is stirred or blown on when too hot.

Yet another suggested manners, like saying “please” and “thank you.”

Math could be part of the conversation, Williams added. Parents could count bites or utensils.

“Just because they can’t talk back to us doesn’t mean they can’t understand what we’re saying,” Williams said.

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Between October and February, parents took 13 classes. Among the topics: Popular songs and rhymes; what to talk about when away from home; and ways to read with children.

LENA also uses technology that analyzes life at home. The software takes recordings from parents and counts everything from the number of adult words they speak to how often the child hears objects like televisions. It can then compare those totals to previous recordings to help set goals.

More than 70 percent of families in Virginia Beach’s first class increased their interactions, Lito said. That’s on par with LENA’s previous groups. In addition, graduates saw a 16 percent growth in adult words used.

The Hunters learned about Start last fall, shortly before the program’s first class. Ivy was only a few weeks old, but the couple were eager to try anything they could find that might help her.

“We jump on a lot of things,” Teresa Hunter said.

Teresa, 34, admits that if they hadn’t joined the class, they probably would’ve been using lots of baby talk with Ivy. Instead, they’re reading books, like Dr. Seuss’ “Green Eggs and Ham.”

She also sings lullabies like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” to Ivy before bed.

Isaiah, 33, even took advantage of the program to challenge himself. He has always been interested in studying different languages, so he has spent the past few months working on his Spanish and introducing Ivy to some basic words.

It’s too soon to tell how these efforts might help Ivy. Mom and dad are optimistic, though.

“Hopefully this early start will create an appetite for learning,” Isaiah Hunter said.