Julia Baron of Annapolis came because she wanted to find a more effective way to communicate with her 14-month-old son, Ben.

Joel Berger, a Kent Island lawyer, showed up to reinforce the words he has been teaching his 13-month-old daughter, Aliya.

And Teresa Titus of Odenton drove to Annapolis last week to expose her 1-year-old daughter, Hanna, to a new form of communication.

No, this wasn't a Kindermusik session or a class in Baby Mozart.

On this sunny day, the three parents, along with a few dozen other moms, dads and nannies, had crowded into the conference room at the Annapolis Area Library to learn how to communicate with their hearing toddlers through sign language.

The room had been transformed into a virtual toyland -- chairs that normally circle the room's large wooden tables were pushed to the sides, and toys were scattered along the room's blue carpet.

Six-month-old infants crawled after spongy Frisbees. Two-year-olds scrambled under a miniature parachute, and toddlers reached through the air to grab at bubbles.

Program coordinator Carolyn Stephan, co-founder of Signing With Kids, based in Northern Virginia, began the one-hour program by singing songs, playing games and using puppets to introduce toddlers and their parents to the signs for simple words such as "milk," "dog," "cat" and "bed." By repeating the signing symbols, she said, parents can teach their toddlers to use these phrases to communicate when they're hungry, tired, sick or want to play with a favorite toy.

"It's mostly about meeting the needs and the wants of the child," Stephan said. "When they learn [to sign], the child is much less frustrated. When the kids are less frustrated, the parents are less frustrated, and it makes for a much happier family environment."

Stephan broke out in song -- singing "Itsy Bitsy Spider" and "Ten Little Monkeys" as the children danced, sang and clapped, attempting to imitate her signs.

"Would you like more?" Stephan asked the group of toddlers awash in the bubbles she had just blown into the air.

Stephan tapped her fingertips together -- the standard American Sign Language signal for "more" -- and the group of attentive parents sat on the floor, legs crossed, mimicking her every move.

Ellie Jenkins, a 2-year-old with brown pigtails and wearing a denim dress, picked up the sign right away.

"She's been going to speech therapy," said Jill Vandam, Ellie's nanny, explaining that her charge started seeing a speech therapist when she was 18 months old after an ear infection slightly impaired her hearing and, subsequently, her ability to speak.

"I can't tell you how much [sign language] changed our quality of life," said Ellie's mother, Susan Jenkins of Annapolis. "She used to throw her sippy cup and have a tantrum because she wanted more but she just didn't know how to tell us.

"Sometimes when kids are throwing temper tantrums it's not because they are just going through a phase, it's because they are trying to tell us something but can't."

Stephan, a stay-at-home mother of two, started Signing With Kids two years ago after meeting company co-founder Tegan Corradino at a new mom's group in Virginia.

"When I saw her son signing, I was fascinated,"said Stephan. "He was signing at only 6 or 7 months old. When you see that happen, it's really quite phenomenal."

Stephan approached Corradino about starting a local sign language class for toddlers between 6 months and 2 years old and their parents.

Now Signing With Kids has five sign language instructors who teach weekly workshops in Virginia. Stephan hopes the company will soon be able to conduct weekly workshops in Maryland and the District as well.

Parents who attended last week's free workshop seemed happy with the results.

"I was really surprised at the turnout," said Baron, who wasn't expecting to see so many parents at the event. "To me it said that I'm not the only mother out there who sees that her child is frustrated sometimes. I'm hoping that this will give me the ability to build a common ground of communication with him."

Using sign language may be especially helpful for children who begin to speak later than most of their peers, according to Rosalind Thornton, a linguistics professor at the University of Maryland who studies how children acquire language.

"There are some children who are almost 2 who aren't talking yet," Thornton said. "For those children, this could be beneficial. I think the key here is that it's just really one [or two] word[s] that they're teaching. But I don't think that they are really teaching language any earlier."

However, after children learn to speak, their use of sign language often disappears, according to Stephan.

At 18 months, Stephan's daughter could utter only about 10 words, the sign language instructor said. Instead of speaking, her main mode of communication was signing. However, after children learn to speak, their use of sign language diminishes, she said.

Stephan and Corradino's workshops include children as young as 6 months old, but Thornton wonders whether an infant that young can effectively use sign language to communicate.

"I would be very surprised if a 6-month-old could sign something and really mean what they are signing," Thornton said.

Others in the field, including Dennis Berrigan, an American Sign Language training and evaluation coordinator at the Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center in Washington, believe that children are never too young to start learning to sign.

"Anytime children are given an avenue to communicate, life is less frustrating for them," Berrigan said. "It's never too early to teach a child language."

Twenty-month-old Emma Caulk attempts to form a word at "Signing With Kids," a sign language class for children who can hear.Leslie Coble learns to sign a word while her sons, 18-month-old Thomas and 3-year-old Scott, watch the teacher.