Bedtime Stories for Young Brains, by Perri Klass, M.D.

I want to recommend this article by Dr. Perri Klass to all parents. You may want to read it at the NY Times website – CLICK HERE TO READ THE ARTICLE AT THE NY TIMES WEBSITE. There are wonderful comments from parents who support what Dr. Klass says in so many different words. I’ve always been a huge proponent of reading to children. The more you read to them, the better their language skills, knowledge of the world, early reading abilities, visual spatial abilities, and more. This article talks about the value that reading to children has on your child’s brain. Enjoy!

A little more than a year ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement saying that all pediatric primary care should include literacy promotion, starting at birth.

That means pediatricians taking care of infants and toddlers should routinely be advising parents about how important it is to read to even very young children. The policy statement, which I wrote with Dr. Pamela C. High, included a review of the extensive research on the links between growing up with books and reading aloud, and later language development and school success.

But while we know that reading to a young child is associated with good outcomes, there is only limited understanding of what the mechanism might be. Two new studies examine the unexpectedly complex interactions that happen when you put a small child on your lap and open a picture book.

This month, the journal Pediatrics published a study that used functional magnetic resonance imaging to study brain activity in 3-to 5-year-old children as they listened to age-appropriate stories. The researchers found differences in brain activation according to how much the children had been read to at home.

Children whose parents reported more reading at home and more books in the home showed significantly greater activation of brain areas in a region of the left hemisphere called the parietal-temporal-occipital association cortex. This brain area is “a watershed region, all about multisensory integration, integrating sound and then visual stimulation,” said the lead author, Dr. John S. Hutton, a clinical research fellow at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

This region of the brain is known to be very active when older children read to themselves, but Dr. Hutton notes that it also lights up when younger children are hearing stories. What was especially novel was that children who were exposed to more books and home reading showed significantly more activity in the areas of the brain that process visual association, even though the child was in the scanner just listening to a story and could not see any pictures.

“When kids are hearing stories, they’re imagining in their mind’s eye when they hear the story,” said Dr. Hutton. “For example, ‘The frog jumped over the log.’ I’ve seen a frog before, I’ve seen a log before, what does that look like?”

The different levels of brain activation, he said, suggest that children who have more practice in developing those visual images, as they look at picture books and listen to stories, may develop skills that will help them make images and stories out of words later on.

“It helps them understand what things look like, and may help them transition to books without pictures,” he said. “It will help them later be better readers because they’ve developed that part of the brain that helps them see what is going on in the story.”

Dr. Hutton speculated that the book may also be stimulating creativity in a way that cartoons and other screen-related entertainments may not.

“When we show them a video of a story, do we short circuit that process a little?” he asked. “Are we taking that job away from them? They’re not having to imagine the story; it’s just being fed to them.”

We know that it is important that young children hear language, and that they need to hear it from people, not from screens. Unfortunately, there are serious disparities in how much language children hear — most famously demonstrated in a Kansas study that found poor children heard millions fewer words by age 3.

But it turns out that reading to — and with — young children may amplify the language they hear more than just talking. In August, Psychological Science reported on researchers who studied the language content of picture books. They put together a selection from teacher recommendations, Amazon best sellers, and other books that parents are likely to be reading at bedtime.

In comparing the language in books to the language used by parents talking to their children, the researchers found that the picture books contained more “unique word types.”

“Books contain a more diverse set of words than child-directed speech,” said the lead author, Jessica Montag, an assistant research psychologist at the University of California, Riverside. “This would suggest that children who are being read to by caregivers are hearing vocabulary words that kids who are not being read to are probably not hearing.”

So reading picture books with young children may mean that they hear more words, while at the same time, their brains practice creating the images associated with those words — and with the more complex sentences and rhymes that make up even simple stories.

I have spent a great deal of my career working with Reach Out and Read, which works through medical providers to encourage parents to enjoy books with their infants, toddlers and preschoolers. This year, our 5,600 program sites will give away 6.8 million books (including many to children in poverty), along with guidance to more than 4.5 million children and their parents. (The group also provided some support to Dr. Hutton’s research.)

Studies of Reach Out and Read show that participating parents read more and children’s preschool vocabularies improve when parents read more. But even as someone who is already one of the choir, I am fascinated by the ways that new research is teasing out the complexity and the underlying mechanisms of something which can seem easy, natural and, well, simple. When we bring books and reading into checkups, we help parents interact with their children and help children learn.

“I think that we’ve learned that early reading is more than just a nice thing to do with kids,” Dr. Hutton said. “It really does have a very important role to play in building brain networks that will serve children long-term as they transition from verbal to reading.”

And as every parent who has read a bedtime story knows, this is all happening in the context of face-time, of skin-to-skin contact, of the hard-to-quantify but essential mix of security and comfort and ritual. It’s what makes toddlers demand the same story over and over again, and it’s the reason parents tear up (especially those of us with adult children) when we occasionally happen across a long-ago bedtime book.

The Time to Start Education Isn’t PreKindergarten, It’s Birth, by Ginia Bellafante

This article appeared in the NY Times on April 6, 2014. CLICK HERE to read it at the Times website. If only there could be a local, no a national campaign, as this writer envisions, “prompting mothers and fathers to read to their babies, to use everyday experiences to teach children new words, new ideas, addition and subtraction, and so on.” A child’s education does not begin with pre-K. It begins at birth and it starts with talking to and reading to your child. That’s just the beginning, but it is an important start. If only all young mothers knew this.

Last year, when I was visiting a public school in Sunset Park in Brooklyn for teenagers with boundless difficulties, my host, a poet who teaches at various city schools, mentioned a student who had become pregnant. Hoping to start a library for the child soon to arrive, the poet told the young woman embarking on motherhood that she would like to give her some books — books of the kind her own grandchildren growing up in a very different Brooklyn had by the dozens. The offer was met skeptically. “I already have one,” the girl said.

The successful fight for universal prekindergarten in New York City, a feat the White House called remarkable last week, will allow the city to add 21,440 classroom seats for 4-year-olds this fall and 20,000 more in the fall of 2015, according to the Education Department. As ambitious and important as this initiative is, it cannot, by design, solve the problem of the high school student who thinks one book is enough, and does not yet understand the extent to which parents are obliged to serve as instructors and educators, expanding vocabularies through talking and reading — through exposition and illumination — long before the advent of formal schooling.

In February, Russ Whitehurst, the director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution and former director of the Institute for Education Sciences at the United States Department of Education, testified before Congress on the subject of early education, making the point that universal preschool programs yield disproportionate benefit to middle-class families who may shift children from care they pay for themselves to care that is publicly funded. It is hard to imagine that money will be wasted here, largely because what it means to be middle-class in New York scarcely resembles what it means to be middle-class elsewhere, and because there is so much status attached to the experience of private education that the 92nd Street Y nursery school will surely never find itself short of demand.

And yet the attendant point is a crucial one: that we should concentrate our energies on helping the most vulnerable parents and children beginning at, or before, birth. Programs for 4-year-olds and even 3-year-olds, as Mr. Whitehurst put it, “come too late.”

This is hardly a revelation, and yet there has been a squeamishness on the left to create sweeping policy out of the kind of intimate intervention implied, a fear of the judgment and condescension ferried in exporting the habits of West End Avenue to Central Brooklyn or the South Bronx. No one wants to live in a world in which social workers are marching through apartments mandating the use of colorful, laminated place mats emblazoned with pictures of tiny kangaroos and the periodic table.

But at the same time, the notion that parenting is something that could be, and ought to be, taught is rooted in the history of progressivism. This idea serves as the centerpiece of “Fighting for Life, ” the memoir of S. Josephine Baker, first published in 1939 and recently reissued by the New York Review of Books. Dr. Baker was an early feminist, a graduate of Vassar and the Women’s Medical College in Manhattan who in 1908 began to run the city’s new Bureau of Child Hygiene.

In that role, Dr. Baker sent nurses into the slums and then across the city to visit mothers within days of their giving birth to teach them how to care for babies, to encourage breast-feeding and consistent bathing, and to dissuade unhealthy practices like allowing children to play in gutters and serving infants beer. During the first three years of Dr. Baker’s tenure, the infant death rate in the city declined by 40 percent.

As a medical intern and as a city health inspector, Dr. Baker had involved herself in the lives of the poor, witnessing horrific episodes of maternal misconduct but drawing from them compassion rather than contempt. In one instance, in Boston, Dr. Baker wrote, a woman arrived at the hospital about to give birth with her feet burned and blistered because, warming them in the oven, she had fallen asleep while drunk.

“Having borne children and lived and fought and made love regardless, they took that method of dodging consequences,” Dr. Baker wrote of the penchant for drink among the underclass, “but one could not honestly blame them for making use of alcohol as an anesthetic.”

The paternalism of our previous mayor stirred so much anger and resentment in large part because it was virtually impossible to imagine him saying anything like that. But it is easy to envision someone like Mayor Bill de Blasio, who made compassion so thematic in his campaign, spearheading parenting initiatives that might find national resonance (as Dr. Baker’s did) — prompting mothers and fathers to read to their children as babies, to use everyday experiences to teach small children new words, new ideas, addition and subtraction and so on.

He could say that he understands how hard it is to make time for things that might not seem immediately necessary, but that in the end can make the difference, if not between literal life and death, then between the prospects of a good life and a flattened one.


Your Toddler Can Read the Literary Classics!

I was intrigued by this article in the NY Times a few weeks ago. CLICK HERE to read the article at the Times website. Publishers are now creating simplified versions of literary classics for the preschool set. I think it’s a fabulous idea! Anything that encourages a parent to read to and cuddle with their child works for me!

A Library of Classics, Edited for the Teething Set

The humble board book, with its cardboard-thick pages, gently rounded corners and simple concepts for babies, was once designed to be chewed as much as read.

But today’s babies and toddlers are treated to board books that are miniature works of literary art: classics like “Romeo and Juliet,” “Sense and Sensibility” and “Les Misérables”; luxuriously produced counting primers with complex graphic elements; and even an “Art for Baby” book featuring images by the contemporary artists Damien Hirst and Paul Morrison.

Booksellers say that parents are flocking to these books, even if the idea that a 2-year-old could understand “Moby-Dick” seems absurd on the face of it. A toddler might not be expected to follow the plot, but she could learn about harpoons, ships and waves, with quotes alongside (“The waves rolled by like scrolls of silver”).

Publishers of these books are catering to parents who follow the latest advice by child-development experts to read to babies early and often, and who believe that children can display aesthetic preferences even while they are crawling and eating puréed foods.

“If we’re going to play classical music to our babies in the womb and teach them foreign languages at an early age, then we’re going to want to expose babies to fine art and literature,” said Linda Bubon, an owner and children’s book buyer at Women & Children First, a bookstore in Chicago. “Now we know there are things we can do to stimulate the mind of a baby.”

Suzanne Gibbs Taylor, the associate publisher and creative director of Gibbs Smith, a small publisher in Salt Lake City that conceived the popular BabyLit series, said she realized that no one had ever “taken Jane Austen and made it for babies.”

While the BabyLit books do not try to lay out a complicated narrative of “Wuthering Heights” or “Romeo and Juliet,” they use the stories as a springboard to explain counting, colors or the concept of opposites. The popular “Cozy Classics” line of board books, introduced in 2012 by Simply Read Books, a publisher based in Vancouver, B.C., adapts stories like “Moby-Dick” and “Les Misérables” for infants and toddlers using pictures of needle-felted figures of Captain Ahab and Jean Valjean.

“People are realizing that it’s never too young to start putting things in front of them that are a little more meaningful, that have more levels,” said Ms. Taylor, whose BabyLit series has sold about 300,000 books so far. “It’s not so simple as, ‘Here’s a dog, here’s the number 2.’ ”

While the publishing industry is still scraping through the digital revolution, children’s books have remained relatively untouched. Most parents are sticking to print for their young children even when there are e-book versions or apps available, and videos like the once ubiquitous “Baby Einstein,” founded in 1997 as a fast-track to infant genius, have fallen out of fashion.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that television should be avoided for children younger than 2 years old, and studies have suggested that babies and toddlers receive much greater benefit from real interactions than from experiences involving video screens.

“There has been a proliferation of focus on early childhood development on the education side,” said John Mendelson, the sales director at Candlewick Press, “as well as on the retail side.”

Board books, traditionally for newborns to 3-year-olds, have always been a smaller and somewhat neglected category in the publishing business, compared with the larger and more expensive hardcover picture books designed for children of reading age.

But board books may be catching up. Libraries that used to shun the genre are now buying them from publishers. Bookstores are making more room for board books on their shelves. And while a board book might have once been too insubstantial a gift to bring to a child’s birthday party, the newer, highly stylized versions (that can run up to $15) would easily pass muster.

“A board book was little more than a teething ring,” said Christopher Franceschelli, who directs Handprint Books, an imprint of Chronicle Books. “I think as picture books have developed in the last 20 years, parents, librarians, teachers have thought, ‘Why should board books be any less than their older siblings?’ ”

In 2012, Abrams Books, the art-book publisher, created a new imprint, Abrams Appleseed, to focus on books for babies, toddlers and preschoolers. Since then, it has published high-end books like “Pantone: Color Puzzles,” released this month, which uses intricate drawings and puzzle pieces to teach children the differences between colors like peacock blue and nighttime blue.

“If you look at board books from 15 years ago, it looks like the stuff on there was pulled off the Internet somewhere,” said Cecily Kaiser, the publishing director of Abrams Appleseed. “Now there’s a real embrace of a much more artful style.”

At Chronicle, a San Francisco-based publisher, sales of board books have been rising for at least two to three years. Editors there have experimented with books that attempt interactivity, such as a line of books with finger puppets. “We’re in this era of mass good design for everybody,” said Ginee Seo, the children’s publishing director at Chronicle. “You’re seeing good design at Target; you can buy Jonathan Adler at Barnes & Noble. You’re not willing to accept the cheesy clip art on a board book.”

Jon Yaged, the president and publisher of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group, said the demand for board books has driven him to release more of them in recent years. He has also added ornate flourishes: on the cover of a new edition of “The Pout-Pout Fish,” the title reads in a shiny gold foil, a touch that would normally have been reserved for a more expensive picture book.

Cindy Hudson, a guidebook author and mother of two in Portland, Ore., who runs a Web site suggesting books for parents to read with their children, said she doubted a baby would “benefit intellectually” from being exposed to Tolstoy or the Brontë sisters.

Still, “anything that encourages that interaction between babies and parents is a good thing,” she said. “That’s where the learning and the bonding comes from.”