A rising number of children are starting school without the literacy skills they need to cope with life the classroom. A contributing factor is the decrease in the time children spend reading or being read to as television and computer games take over. Child development professionals agree that reading with children is essential to helping them gain language skills, but what about reading with babies? Does it really help them to develop, or is it a waste of time until they can understand and use words?
Given that most babies have, by the time they are a year old, learnt all the sounds they are going to need to speak, activities that expose them to a wide variety of different words, such as stories, songs and nursery rhymes, are all going to help. When reading a story, adults tend to use exaggerated expression which helps babies to understand how speech is used. Sharing a book with a baby also helps them to understand and practise the rules of communication, such as listening when someone else is speaking. Sharing a book with their baby is a great opportunity for time-pushed parents to have a cuddle and give their baby some one-to-one attention.
Some parents take the importance of reading further, and start before their baby is born. There is research to suggest that reading aloud to your baby whilst pregnant helps with voice recognition and in the early months of life babies can be calmed down by hearing the same passages read aloud that they heard in the womb. Many younger babies find the calm, steady rhythm of being read aloud to comforting and it can be a useful part of establishing a bedtime routine.
Knowing the benefits is all well and good, but if you are not trying to get the baby to sleep and you would like to enjoy a whole story together, finding ways to help the baby access the story and keep interested can be a challenge. This is not to say that it should not be attempted – we do not wait for a baby to be able to hold a rattle before we offer toys, offering toys is part of the experience. Likewise, hearing stories even though they cannot yet be fully understood is part of learning to enjoy them. There are ways to help babies enjoy books that make the experience more fun for everyone.
Story sacks offer one option. They consist of a bag containing the story book, a selection of puppets or props and maybe a relevant game or non-fiction book, which are helpful for approaching the story in a multi-sensory and attention-grabbing way. They also include a guide for parents, suggesting activities and games to play. Although most of these are more suitable for children rather than babies, the puppets and interactive story-telling are always a hit with the under-ones. Many Sure Start Centres and libraries have story sacks, and Fleet Fireflies has recently started a loan service, where story sacks can be borrowed for a pound – a bargain when compared to the cost of buying your own puppets.
Some parents are comfortable with acting out the stories themselves. Nothing is as exciting for a baby as their parents doing something, especially when it is something funny – it was whilst I was on the floor being a caterpillar that my baby gave us her first laugh. If you get really into it, you can introduce props and costumes (ensure that you have not arranged for the window cleaner to come that day!) However, if drama isn’t your thing, someone else reading this way is a very good substitute, and most libraries hold story sessions. Library or Sure Start staff read stories with great animation and enthusiasm whilst you simply hold your baby and enjoy it together.
Some books lend themselves to ‘jazzing up’ fairly easily. For example, ‘We’re Going On A Bear Hunt’ by Michael Rosen works well with sound effects for the mud, snow storms and so on that the characters encounter. ‘Handa’s Surprise’ by Eileen Browne can be made into a tactile experience by using a basket and some real fruit. The story of ‘The Three Little Pigs’ is easy to recreate with some straw (borrowed from your guinea pig), some lolly pop sticks and a few bits of Lego. My baby loves knocking the houses down. We did have a set of finger puppet for this story, but we’ve lost all of them except the wolf so last time three rubber ducks stepped in as pigs (the only other thing I had in the house of an appropriate size were uncooked sausages, which would have been unhygienic and rather macabre!)
Reading to a baby is one of the cheapest and easiest ways to give them the best start in life. Whilst computer games and television will undoubtedly play a part the lives of today’s babies as they grow up in the twenty-first century, it has to be hoped that they will also find time to sit down with a story.