Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Tuesday Tip Day: Reading to Babies

Rats. I wanted to use an incredibly cute picture of my oldest "reading" a book when he was about 5 months old to illustrate this post, but ever since I upgraded my Mac operating system to Leopard I haven't been able to get my scanner to work. (I have a Kodak EasyShare 5300 all-in-one printer/scanner/copier if anyone has any suggestions - tech support is stumped, though it's clear from message boards that I'm hardly the only one having scanner problems with Leopard.) So no sketches either until I get this worked out.

Anyhow, I've been thinking about reading to babies ever since a recent chat with a neighbor who was complaining about how it was impossible to read to her 9-month old. It was clear to me that she was having a completely typical experience with a baby that age - he was squirmy, insisted on turning the pages himself every which direction, had no interest in the story, and only occasionally paused to check out a picture. She felt like he was getting nothing out of their storytimes - and all she was getting was frustrated. But believe it or not, that crazy kind of reading session is enormously valuable for a child that age - her baby's developing his fine motor skills, visual tracking ability, and sense of self and initiative while learning about the physical characteristics of books, and even absorbing some language - all good things. The only problem, really, is that the mom needed to be reassured that their experience was normal and worthwhile.

And then today I saw a great article by librarian and children's literature reviewer Karen MacPherson in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about Beginning with Books' annual Best Books for Babies list. You can read the article, with its excellent tips for choosing and sharing books with babies and toddlers here. (Okay, it caught my eye because my book Cheep! Cheep! - pictured above - made the list.) But it reminded me of several difficulties parents face when trying to find and read books to the littlest guys: one, it's hard to find quality books pitched just right for babies; two, parenting books rarely inform parents what's normal about reading with different age babies; and three, that's important information, because babies of different ages have very different interests, skills, and needs - just imagine the vast differences in motor skills, language, and passions between a newborn and a two year old!

The following list of what kinds of books and how to read to babies of different ages is my own, unscientific one, based on my experiences as a parent and former infant and toddler daycare teacher, seasoned with my knowledge of child development. If anyone out there has different or additional info, please share it! And please, please, please, share your favorite book choices for different ages!

I'll start this week with tips for the first year of life:

Prenatal to 3 months Yes! You can start reading to your baby even before she's born, though people like my husband might laugh at you. Babies can hear well before birth, and there are clever studies showing fetuses not only recognize the voices they heard in utero, but the actual stories they listened to in the weeks before birth. Naturally, the illustrations don't matter - nor do they matter much for the first few months after birth, when babies' vision is fuzzy and they'd prefer to watch you making those funny faces as you talk anyhow. Your best bets are books with rhyme, rhythm, and repetition - Mother Goose, Dr. Seuss, Shakespeare, song lyrics - whatever you enjoy.

3 to 6 months Lap babies who aren't yet total wiggleworms are the perfect age for cuddle-reading. Especially if you've been reading all along, expect baby to sit on your lap and study the pictures while you read to her. Babies this age like to finger the edges of the covers and pages and to pat or "rake" the pictures. What's best? Very brief texts to accommodate baby's short attention span, lines with rhyme and rhythm, and illustrations that are simple and bold, with lots of contrast (bright colors, heavy black outlines, etc.). Babies this age LOVE to look at faces, and will smile themselves at a smiling face or stare soberly at a sad one.

6 to 12 months During the second half of this year, baby's emerging fine motor skills - and his drive to scoot, crawl, cruise and go, go, go make reading to him a real challenge. But his growing language awareness, his need to explore the concept of symbols (the idea that something -like a picture of a dog - can stand for a real thing, like an actual dog), his emerging ability to self-calm, and his rapidly developing visual and fine motor skills make reading practically an essential activity. This is the age for board books, cloth books, and those plastic books for the bath or high chair. When babies stick their books in their mouths, they're not just tasting them or trying to eat them, but learning about their tactile qualties using their enormously sensitive lips and tongues. Huh! How weird is it that that picture that looks like a fuzzy duckling feels cool and smooth and tastes like cardboard? The ability to grasp a page or group of pages helps refine baby's grasp, and he can play peek-a-boo to learn about object constancy (the idea that things still exist when out of sight) as he turns the pages back and forth, back and forth. Toward the end of the first year, some babies will have clear favorites they want you to "read." But forget about a storyline, or even trying to read one-word pages in order. Naming, pointing, and just playing "surprise!" or "Huh! Look at that again!" will make for a more satisfying storytime than trying to plow through a book front to back. Best bets: books with familiar objects, animals, and other babies, limited or even no text, and, toward baby's first birthday, ones with a bit of detail and perhaps an object or two to hunt for on each page.

Okay - comment with your suggestions please!

P.S. Those of you who love 3-D art, like I do, check out Salley Mavor's Wee Willie Winkie title on the Best Books list - it's breathtaking, as all of Salley's work is.


Nate said...

Hi Carol:
Your thoughts on reading to babies is spot on! In fact, I think it's what was behind a series of 5 new board books titled You Are Important, You Are Beautiful, You Are Brave, You Are Creative, and You Are Friendly. The text is short, and the pictures depict real kids with great expressions that are really engagingfor ages 3 months +. I found them on amazon.

Crystal said...

Hi Carol!
We recently got this book and my 1 yr. old LOVES it!
I enjoy reading it to him over and over again because I love your illustrations!
Anyway, I googled your name to see a portfolio of your other work and lo, you have a blog!
Great job on those cute chickies!