When you ask most adults what they want for their children, the usual response is “We want them to be happy”. So, what does it take to make a kid happy? Limitless time on electronica whilst munching on copious amounts of lollies? Believe me, I have seen children raised in environments where there are no limits and they are certainly not happy kids.
Normally, when we ask people to expand on the idea of what they really want for their growing children, the themes are usually:
- We would like our kids to be bright enough to get a decent job or get some satisfaction from contributing to the world in some way.
- We’d like them to be socialised enough to have a good set of friends and to be able to give and receive within warm and loving relationships.
- We want them to be street wise enough to know when to fight for something and when to carefully back away.
- We’d like our kids to have sound values – whatever we believe those values to be - to appreciate and nurture the Earth, push their bodies to peak physical fitness or devote themselves to a cause.
Educators have known for a long time now that sharing books with kids can help them grow cognitively. In fact, there have been programs specifically designed to increase the sharing of books with children as a way to stimulate their cognitive growth in some countries where children were knowingly falling behind. Book sharing stimulates cognitive and language skills. Little brains grow when they are assisted to look at the meanings of the text, to follow illustrations, and listen to an expressive voice reading the story. It’s delightful to watch children grow cognitively and linguistically.
Warm and loving relationships
As a psychologist, I’m interested in more than a child’s ability to read. It sure is handy if a child has the ability to translate-visual-shapes-to-sounds-of-words type reading. Reading text is a much higher and more complex process than the basic yet critical processes that are important to healthy child development. However the process that I think is most important involves emotional attachment - sharing time learning and reflecting on the world (ours or others’), its peoples and their ideas whilst cuddled up next to a safe and loving adult.
The types of events that can occur as part of the book sharing process are monumentally important to a child’s development – the warm touch, the repetition and predictable routine, the comforting lilt of the spoken words, the shared wonderings, the questions asked and the ideas and experiences reflected out loud.
Books can promote bonding. It’s important that children have a safe basis from which to explore the world and to grow with experiences and regularly sharing books with children can contribute to a stable emotional base.
Another wonderful aspect of sharing a book, especially a picture book, is the opportunity it provides to recognise and discuss the emotions of the characters. If we want our children to grow up socially and emotionally connected, they need to be able to have social skills and an emotional intellect. We should help them to “read” the art and look for emotions in the pictures as well as in the words.
If children are encouraged to reflect on the facial expressions on illustrated characters or the ways the narratives are expressed they can begin to learn more about emotions and the effects of certain behaviours on other people.
From the safe place cuddled next to a grownup reader, a child can also learn vicariously about others. Vicarious learning means taking on information from watching and hearing about what happens to other people. We don’t have to go and try it out for ourselves. We can hear and see how things work out for others who make certain choices or have certain adventures. In essence, a child can be exposed to much wisdom when a book is shared and discussed.
Story tellers have known about vicarious learning way before there was any such thing as a psychologist. Morals and traditions have been passed down in art, song, dance, rhyme and narrative for many, many years. A book can contain all of these modalities without leaving the comfort of the couch, with or without special costumes and with or without body paint. Sharing a book with a child also allows them to reflect on the experiences of the characters and make decisions about the sorts of choices they make and experience they want to have. Sharing a book means sharing values.
...and more than just pages
So, there are many ways that sharing books can contribute to healthy child development. Books can help not only volume by volume, but sharing the world of books with children also means more time shared with adults exploring libraries, local bookshops, galleries and festivals. Children can utilise books for knowledge, for escape, as a source of soothing, a topic of conversation or just to be entertained.
A child does not need to be able to read to share the joy of a book. It’s not just reading books, but the process of sharing books that’s important. It’s also not just the text, but it’s the images, the sounds of the reader’s voice, as well as the feel of the book and the environment in which the book is shared. From a secure and loving base, shared books can help children develop in oh so many wonderful ways!
Visit Shona’s website to find out more about her work and writing. You can also keep up with her latest news at her Facebook page and via Twitter.
Monday 14th April - Writing Children's Books with Robyn Opie Parnell
Tuesday 15th April - Booktopia
Wednesday 16th April - Children's Books Daily
Thursday 17th April - Kids Book Review - that's us!
Friday 18th April - Buzz Words