Babies and young children are amazing. They grow and change so quickly. That’s clear from how frequently hand-me-down clothes pass around among parents of little ones, but the growth is not just what’s visible. Their brains are developing at super-speed, too. Especially during the first three years of a child’s life, but throughout early childhood, brain development happens faster than at any other time of life. Supporting a child’s learning during this period has long-term positive impacts for them, academically and personally.
Whether you are a parent, a grandparent, a family member, or a friend, you have the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of the children you love. Relationships with caring, engaged adults are the most important factor in early brain development and early learning starts with those relationships. An astonishing 90% of brain growth happens before children enter Kindergarten. Clearly, those early experiences matter.
Does that sound intimidating? Stick with me—I promise that you’re going to do just fine.
Library storytime is a beloved core service that supports the early learning and development of our littlest patrons through stories, songs, fingerplays, games, and hands-on exploration. We love that families come to storytime, but, due to the pandemic, those can only be accessed virtually at our YouTube channel, JCLS Beyond. Those developing brains are ready to learn every day, so it falls to families to make a daily practice of activities that encourage early learning and literacy.
The good news is that you already know how to do this. You do not have to be a trained librarian or early childhood educator to give your child the gift of early learning. All you need to do is read, write, talk, sing, and play with your child. Does that sound too simple? Let’s break it down.
Think about reading a favorite book with a child. You’re both enjoying the story, you’re pointing out details in the pictures, maybe you’re doing silly voices and laughing together. So fun! In addition to having a happy time and strengthening your relationship, reading together develops a child’s vocabulary and comprehension of how words and narratives work, nurtures a love for reading, and motivates children to want to learn to read.
When children see you write or draw, it models those skills for them, and they will often be inspired to imitate you. Of course, a two-year-old will not be able to write their name, but holding a chunky crayon and making marks on a piece of paper develops the motor skills they will need down the road. When you write a word for a child and tell them what it says, they start to become aware that printed letters stand for spoken words. When they see their own name written, it boosts their confidence and gives them a sense of ownership over the particular combination of letters that means them.
Talking with children helps them develop their spoken language skills, which gives them an instinctive understanding of how communication works and builds their vocabulary. Think of early language acquisition as a toolbox that young children will use to gain all other early literacy skills. To fill their toolbox, children need to hear adults speak to them and be given opportunities to join in the conversation. Even when children are pre-verbal, treat their babbling and cooing as conversation. Listen, and respond to their invitation to engage.
When we sing, it slows down language so children can hear the small sounds within words. Think about singing “Twin-kle, twin-kle lit-tle star” and how the tune combined with the hand motions reinforce the syllable division. This slowing can help, later on, when they are beginner readers learning to sound out words in a book. Children often respond positively to rhythm, so poetry, nursery rhymes, and finger plays like Itsy-Bitsy Spider or Where is Thumbkin are great ways to help them build this skill while having fun together. Whether you think you are a great singer or not, your child will enjoy the chance to connect and learn from what you do.
Fred Rogers famously said that “Play is really the work of childhood.” Through play, children experiment, explore, and learn about their world. Pretend play develops social-emotional skills and is a safe way to feel big emotions. On top of all that, play is one of the most effective ways for children to gain early literacy skills. As they play, they put thoughts into words, learn to communicate complex ideas, and express their feelings. When playing with a child, ask them open-ended questions to encourage experimentation.
Reading, writing, talking, singing, and playing are five powerful activities you probably already do with your child. Whenever you make the time to engage your little one with one of these practices, you’re encouraging synaptic connections in their rapidly developing brain and building a smarter, stronger, more resilient person. It takes effort to create habits that incorporate early literacy practices, but their long-term benefits are worth it. If you’re interested in learning more, you can visit the website Zero to Three for information on early childhood development and Talking is Teaching for ideas on how to incorporate these activities into every day.
The bottom line is that early experiences matter. You have what it takes to give your children the tools they will need to succeed. At the library, we value the good work you’re already doing, and are always happy to support you as you discover new ways to incorporate reading, writing, talking, singing, and playing into your routine. You’re doing great work. Now go out there and raise readers!
Guest post by Elinor Anderson