Throughout my 29 year career as a pediatrician, I have seen thousands of children grow and develop from birth through adolescence. As you might expect, I have counseled many patients in aspects of growth and development, vaccinations, proper nutrition and exercise. One of the areas I have been passionate about is literacy. I strongly recommend that parents read to their children and foster a love of reading in their households. Reading can be one of the most influential factors in the development of a healthy brain.
According to a study conducted by the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, the younger children begin reading, the better they do academically throughout their lives. "Reading to very young children even before children have begun to identify letters can form an important foundation for vocabulary development and language skills later in life," the study states (1).
Despite the clear benefits of reading for children, many parents have trouble making books and reading a regular part of their children's' lives. Here are a few of the most common obstacles parents find and some ideas for overcoming them.
My child just won't sit still.
Being active is an excellent quality that relates to many health benefits. Luckily, we don't have to choose between being active and being a reader. There are many books— especially for young children—that incorporate songs and motions. Even if the book doesn't specifically direct movement, you can encourage your child to act out the motion of the characters or provide sound effects for the book. For older children, books about athletes or adventurers—fictional or real—will likely broaden their view of their own capabilities and inspire even more active behavior.
Books are expensive.
A single children's book at a typical book store can cost between $10 and $25. Many families cannot afford to offer a good supply of books at that cost. But there are lots of other ways to make books a regular part of children's lives. The public library is the best: an endless supply of books, absolutely free. And there is likely a librarian on hand to help you find the perfect book.
The library is not the only place to find free books. As a part of the Reach Out and Read Program, SVMC Pediatrics offers new and gently used books to children during their regular well-child visits. Thanks to the generosity of organizations like the Bennington Rotary Club, we have a good selection of gently used books to share.
Inexpensive books can be found at second-hand stores and at tag sales, sometimes for as little as a quarter. Even school book fairs and book orders sent home with children offer books at a cost far less than bookstores. Think of books when birthdays or other gift-giving holidays come around. Encourage each child invited to your child's next birthday party to bring a book instead of a toy.
I have a million things to do. I don't have time to read.
With parents working and juggling their own and their children's busy schedules, time is at a premium. But reading is fast. It takes less than five minutes to choose and read a children's book. And reading fits in very nicely as a part of the bedtime routine. After dinner, you likely already give your child a bath and brush teeth. Squeeze in a book between brushing teeth and going to bed. Routine creates a sense of security in children and strengthens the parent-child bond. Before long, your child will be asking for a second book, and you will enjoy the time so much that you might even decide to read three or four.
My children watch learning programs on TV and play learning games online. I don't need to read with them.
Technology can be helpful in learning, especially for older children, but it is no replacement for reading. New guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend zero screen time for children under three years of age and no more than two hours per day for children over age 3. In a commentary featured in the Journal of Pediatrics earlier this year, researchers reviewed the interactive media available and raised questions regarding its educational effectiveness. According to a summary of the study produced by Boston University Medical Center, "It is well-known that infants and toddlers learn best through hands-on and face-to-face experiences." Reading with a parent is the perfect hands-on, face-to-face activity.
But I don't like reading.
Teaching most things to young children requires us to model. Modeling reading is one of the most beneficial ways of encouraging children to read. Even if you don't think you like reading, having read to this point of this column means you actually do. Whether you are reading a magazine, a newspaper, a cookbook or even a comic book, you are showing your child that interesting information can be gained from the written word. And with the variety of fiction and non-fiction books available, even for young children, you are certain to find something that both you and your child would enjoy.
If, for whatever reason, you still find it difficult to read with your child, consider connecting your child with someone else who likes to read. Ask your child's daycare provider to include a few books each day or make time for your child to visit with an older relative who likes to read. The time your child spends reading with an adult might help him or her discover a love of reading. And that could make a big difference in the likelihood of success in school and beyond.
(1) National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, Science Briefs: The Effects of Early Reading with Parents on Developing Literacy Skills (2007). Retrieved [date of retrieval] from http://www.developingchild.net.
— Lynn Mann, DO, is a pediatrician at SVMC Pediatrics, both at the Bennington and the Manchester Center Campuses. You can reach her by calling 802-362-4440. "Health Matters" is a column meant to educate readers about their personal health, public health matters, and public policy as it affects health care.