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Shared reading and play -support for children’s development

Yesterday marked a celebration of the life of a remarkable young man who I had the privilege of teaching within the Occupational Therapy programme.  He died tragically from the effects of leukaemia at 26 years of age and left behind many people who loved him and held him in high regard.  He was academically brilliant but more than this, he was creative and sensitively relational in his endeavours.  I had the opportunity to briefly speak to his father about his most loved son and he spoke great wisdom about parenting children.  He said he had two thoughts for parents for building the capacities of children –

  1. Read to them and grow in them the love of books
  2. Turn off the TV and encourage creative play

There is much interest in the infant development field about the power of reading to a child and also of supporting play.  We know that the first three years of life are a period of incredible growth in all areas of a baby’s development. A newborn’s brain is about 25 percent of its approximate adult weight. But by age 3, it has grown dramatically by producing billions of cells and hundreds of trillions of connections, or synapses, between these cells.  The one thing we can clearly say from science of child development is that children require a responsive relational environment if they are to develop well and both supporting reading in infancy and play provide this.

baby and books

Spending time reading to babies and young children has many benefits. Lerner and Cievo ( 2004, p 2) summarise that “Talking, reading and singing all stimulate children’s understanding and use of language, and help them learn to become good communicators and eager readers” .  Likewise Trelease (2001) reports that “Reading aloud to children improves their reading, writing, speaking, listening — and best of all, their attitudes about reading”.  Through reading aloud and storytelling, children’s development in print and language exploration as well as in listening and responding are being developed.  “They learn that books contain pictures of familiar things; that they can make their own picture-like marks; that stories, rhymes, and songs are fun to repeat again and again; that they can talk about their own experiences and make up their own stories; and that trusted people affirm what they do, communicate, and say” (HighScope Educational Research Foundation, 2001, p. 5). In addition, reading to babies and toddlers requires adults to dedicate time and  focus to their child and offers the child a chance to be physically close to the parent whilst sharing an experience together. The parent will need to tune into the child’s responses to adjust their presentation of the content so shared reading also supports sensitive attunement and bonding which we know is critical to children’s wellbeing.

In terms of turning off the TV there is much evidence to recommend this as well.  Michael Goldstein, a language development researcher at Cornell University is undertaking research to demonstrate that social responses are fundamental to a child’s ability to fully learn language.

Babies divide up the world between things that respond to them and things that don’t,” Goldstein said. What he has discovered is that things that don’t, don’t teach. A recording does not follow a baby’s cues, which is why infant DVDs, such as Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby, have been found to be ineffective, he explained.

More disturbing though are the negative effects that TV can have on young children’s development.  In a recent study by Pagani et all (2013) that followed almost 2,000 Canadian children from birth, they found that an extra hour’s TV viewing at 2.5-years-old predicted worse performance later when they attended kindergarten. They found that the more TV a child viewed was linked to poorer vocabulary, math and motor skills at 5-years-old.

The need for children to have supported space for exploration and creativity with available parents (who are not preoccupied with their mobile phones or other distractions!) clearly does support children’s development. Magda Gerber writes that  “Infancy is a time of great dependence. Nevertheless babies should be allowed to do things for themselves from the very beginning.”  Child led or non directed play with responsive others giving feedback on gains made, is part of an infant learning agency and mastery. Learning how to include others into the play and to express ones thoughts and emotions in the play medium, builds capacity and supports development of children with few toys required to make this possible.

In the first few years of a child’s life, the investment of time in shared reading and free play, with the TV taking a back seat, will mean that children have the best opportunity to become the leaders and inspirational young people always hoped for in this world.

In memory of Nic Easton

Mandy Seyfang



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