Whanganui Learning Centre recently hosted a workshop featuring two experts in child development and communication.

More than 170 people working in health, education and social services turned up to the War Memorial Centre on Tuesday to hear Susan Morton and Emma Quigan talk about their work.

Auckland-based Ms Quigan is a speech language therapist by training, and is the project manager for Talking Matters, a collaborative programme that focuses on the importance of having conversations with babies and children.

"I'm passionate about community development and supporting families to make the most of those first one thousand days of a child's life.


"We say one thousand days, or three years, of a child's life, because that's when we know there's a tremendous amount of brain development is happening. Talk is about the best thing you can do to foster all of those things - attachment, communication, sense of self."

Ms Quigan said she started her career working one-on-one with children and families.

"This seems like a good idea, but it's counter-intuitive in many ways. You're spending one hour a week or month with the child, but the parent is with them all day every day. So if they learn the skills to have great conversations with their baby from day dot, you'll get a lot more bang for your buck."

Talking Matters is Auckland-based, but plans are under way to open it up to other parts of the countries. Whanganui will be Talking Matters' second community.

Susan Morton is based at the University of Auckland and is the director of Growing Up In New Zealand, a longitudinal study that follows the lives of 7000 children who were born around 2010.

"We're interested in what is shaping all aspects of their development, and understand what can help children have the best start in life," Dr Morton said.

The children are in the first few years of school, and researchers have been looking at their spoken language and communication.

"Unfortunately we do see a lot of differences - which was what we expected, but also kind of sad.

"We are strengths-based - we're not interested in laying blame anywhere. How can we wrap support around these parents in general?"

The parents were enrolled for the study during pregnancy, and the children will be part of the study until they are about 21.

Growing Up In New Zealand is a 21st century version of the famous Dunedin Study, which has been following a group of people from birth. It's been going for nearly 50 years.

"The focus of that study was to look at how the experiences of early life in particular can shape the outcomes in later life," Dr Morton said.

Growing Up In New Zealand more accurately reflects New Zealand's increasingly diverse population.

"The Dunedin Study had people who were almost 99 per cent New Zealand European. In our study, one in four of our children is Māori, one in five is Pacific and one is six is Asian, and one in two has multiple ethnicities."

They also face different environments from the 1970s - they live in a digital world and are less likely to live in a nuclear family.