Why now is a good time for story time
Storytime is a childhood sweet spot. Hannah Davison explores the power of picture books and why we should try and say ‘yes’ to that inevitable request for ‘Just one more!?’.
We’re so often reminded how good reading is for our children’s brains, and to make it part of their daily routine. However, at the risk of sounding like a three-year-old, lately I’ve found myself wanting to ask, “Yeah, but why?”.
For the most part, I love reading to the kids and often get drawn into the story and illustrations as much as they do. Occasionally, however, storytime feels like the last bastion of chaos before awarding myself a well-earned glass of wine and clocking out for the day.
When the kids find the book I’ve hidden and demand that I read it three times straight, I remind myself how important this activity is for their growing brains, take a deep breath ... and read it again. So, with those moments in mind, it’s time to answer the question, “Yeah, but why?”.
NEVER TOO EARLY
A child’s brain doubles in size in their first year. During this time they form building blocks, pathways and connections in response to their environment. Reading with your baby will create an environment which supports and encourages that growth. Enveloped in loving arms, a baby experiences the physical closeness and security of their parent or caregiver. They hear language and voice expression that feeds their brain information and lays the foundation for speech development.
Later, they’ll track the reader’s gaze to focus on what they’re looking at. They’ll explore the colours and shapes of the illustrations. Occasionally, reader and child engage in eye contact and those young brains hungrily gather information from that familiar face and the expressions being made.
Babies love eye-contact. Studies show that brain waves between parent or caregiver and child synchronise when we lock eyes with a baby. A study by Cambridge University found babies that were more in sync with the reader made more vocalisations, indicating a greater development in language.
By the age of two, brain synapses are forming for language and other cognitive functions. After five short years they’ve accelerated through developmental stages involving language, vision, hearing and – importantly – regulation of emotions and learned responses.
WHAT'S HAPPENING IN THERE?
In an essay by Meghan Cox Gurdon for the Wall Street Journal, she writes, “[as a baby is read to] there is connection and synchronisation among the different domains of his brain: the cerebellum, the coral-shaped place at the base of the skull that’s believed to support skill refinement; the default mode network, which is involved with internally directed processes such as introspection, creativity and self-awareness; the visual imagery network, which involves higher-order visual and memory areas and is the brain’s means of seeing pictures in the mind’s eye; the semantic network, which is how the brain extracts the meaning of language; and the visual perception network, which supports the processing of visual stimuli.”. So, while I look forward to post-bedtime peace and quiet, there’s actually a team of architects, engineers and builders busily constructing my child’s brain.
The reading dynamic seems to deliver just what the brain needs for maximum growth and development. Of course, there are other methods for entertaining our children that can mean a little less effort on our part. How do the ‘digital nannies’ in our world compare to reading aloud?
THE GOLDILOCKS EFFECT
Researchers in a 2018 study, quaintly called ‘The Goldilocks Effect,’ looked at how young brains responded to different stimuli. The study focussed on 27 children, all aged around four years old, and used MRI scanning to see how much the brain ‘lit up’ with each activity.
First they looked at the effects of storytelling using voice alone, such as playing a talking book. MRI scans showed that, like Goldilocks’ first bowl of porridge, voice alone was ‘too cold’ to spark high levels of engagement in the children’s brain networks. This is like their in-built construction team clock-watching on a Friday afternoon.
Secondly they looked at the effects of storytelling by animation, such as watching TV or a tablet. MRI scans showed that, like Goldilocks’ second bowl of porridge, this stimulus was ‘too hot’ for the brain. The bright, fast-moving images didn’t give them enough time for deep cognitive engagement. Effectively, the construction team was out to lunch.
Lastly, researchers looked at the effects of reading a book aloud with a child. The MRI scans determined this activity was ‘just right’, in that it stimulated deep cognitive engagement and strengthened neural connections in the brain. After a meeting with upper management, the construction team is now very productive!
Specifically, it’s the combination of the child taking time to explore illustrations, hearing the story, having physical closeness with the reader and being able to take an active role in the experience through eye contact and interaction.
THE 80:20 RULE
Does this mean we should never use talking books, TV or the iPad? Not necessarily. I’m no parenting aficionado, but I know from personal experience that when Mum is in good spirits, everybody else around feels their spirits rise too. And Mum is usually in good spirits when she feels she’s on top of things.
However, there will be times when Mum needs to do a lot of things all at once – a job, feed the baby, make a phone call or just take a few deep breaths in solitude, and for that, we have technological advantages our own parents could have only dreamed of. If it takes a little bit of Peppa Pig to make the day run smoothly, then so be it.
I parent by the 80:20 rule. That means, 80% of the time, I try my best to be an active and engaged parent, making the best possible choices for our children with the resources we have available. The other 20% of the time, I’m a human being who makes mistakes, takes short-cuts, expresses emotions and makes it up as I go along.
It’s healthy to demonstrate some humanity to our children and to talk about it appropriately. There’s no such thing as perfect, so choose to let go of that expectation for yourself. There will be bumps in the road – that’s normal and it’s okay. There are times when we’ll need friends and family to walk beside us. There is strength in acknowledging the truth of our own vulnerability.
Showing our children that it’s okay to take time to look after ourselves, to reach out for support, and to show support for one another are powerful lessons we can impart. The beautiful thing is, you can explore these ideas by sitting together and reading books.
PICKING UP TOOLS
Now we’re geared up to grow some brains, let’s see how upper management can really get that construction team to hustle. The first part is almost effortless. We just have to show up and cuddle up with our little ones. Next, it’s varying how we use our voice to read the book. This has a deep and stimulating effect on kids’ brains.
There is a caveat with really little ones. If they decide halfway through the book that they’d rather chew on its corner than find out where the green sheep actually is, don’t worry. They’re still gathering important information about their environment and book-handling skills. Even better, they get to do it with you. Job done!
On a practical level, cloth or board books are a robust choice for little hands and curious people who are developing a life-long love of reading. There are lots of favourites being published in both paperback and board-book versions.
As they get a little older, children start to make connections between what you say and what they see on the page. You can encourage engagement by saying, “Point to the dog” or ‘Where’s the balloon?’.
All the time, they’ll be listening to the rhythm and expression in your voice, getting familiar with speech patterns and developing their vocabulary. Books that rhyme are great for this and children love them. It’s great fun when they learn what’s coming next and beat you to the punchline.
“Rhyming is a listening skill, not a reading skill; however, once a child understands rhyming, they are quicker to learn to read using Word Families in Phonics” says Verity Busby (a.k.a. Auntie Betty), a remedial tutor for literacy, mathematics and cognitive training through Brain Gains Tutors in Christchurch.
TIPS FOR A GOOD READ
Verity Busby explains how to be an effective reader in her blog auntiebettyillustration.com. Here are her tips for engaging a child’s brain as you read:
📖 Read clearly and more slowly than you speak normally.
📖 Bring the characters to life, giving each their own voice and acting out emotions.
📖 Vary your pace and volume, reading faster and louder when the story is exciting; or, slower and lower for drama.
📖 Allow time for your child to examine the illustrations and ask them what they see, point out details, colours and textures.
📖 Ask your child how they think a character is feeling, what the character is doing, or, what do they think will happen next.
📖 Count different elements in the illustration together, eg “Let’s count the chickens on the page”.
📖 Explain new and interesting sounding words and repeat them to grow vocabulary.
📖 Create a learning opportunity by pointing to an image and asking, “Do you know what this is?”.
“By reading picture books this way, you’re utilising meta-cognition; facilitating the child’s learning through making them aware of their own thought processes and probing them to ‘figure things out’ rather than you telling them” says Verity.
THE WORLD AT YOUR FINGERTIPS
As you read different books, you open whole new worlds of ideas and experiences for your child. Stories give children the opportunity to trial scenarios they may encounter later in life as the book’s characters take them along for their journey. With your guidance, they can start to gain the emotional and verbal tools to help explain, understand and navigate life. What better way to meet the world, than with you by their side.
Hannah Davison is a Scottish-born, New Zealand-grown freelance journalist, blogger and writer of children’s fiction. She can be found at home on their family farm in North Canterbury with her husband, two children and a range of animals. Find out more at hannahedavison.com.
AS FEATURED IN ISSUE 46 OF OHbaby! MAGAZINE. CHECK OUT OTHER ARTICLES IN THIS ISSUE BELOW