Ingredients for Success: Reach Out and Read!
In this series, I discuss some of the most important ways that parents can help their children stay healthy and happy throughout their lives.
As a pediatrician, my goal for all of my patients is for them to live healthy, happy, and successful lives. I want the children I care for to do well in school, to make good friends, to have positive relationships with their families, and to find their passions and pursue them fearlessly into adulthood. The most important factor that determines whether a child is more or less likely to succeed in school, and in life, is the quality of interactions they have with the people who care for them. Children need face to face time interacting with their parents in order to learn and grow. This is crucial at all stages of childhood, but especially in the first years of life. For babies, learning is an interactive process, that requires active participation by their parents. When babies smile, or gesture, or babble, or even make eye contact, they are inviting their parents to respond. When parents smile and babble with their babies, they are having their first "conversations" with them. These conversations are how babies learn not only language, but also social cues and interactions, and build emotional connections.
Because we recognize the importance of these early interactions between children and their parents, Oregon Pediatrics' Happy Valley and Meridian Park clinics have partnered with Reach Out and Read to provide free books to our patients at every well visit from the time they are 6 months old until they are 5 years old, and we hope to eventually expand the program to our Clackamas and Northeast Portland locations as well. Our goal is to make sure every parent knows how important early exposure to books is for growing children. Reading to your baby allows you to have constant conversations with them. Books provide a rich source of new pictures to see, words to hear and repeat, questions to ask, and faces and gestures to make for both parents and children.
Of course, you don't need a book to have a conversation with your child, and all the time you spend with your child is valuable, but often times play with other kinds of toys or games can be dangerously devoid of language and interaction. There is no toy, and certainly no software, that can ever replace the richness of learning that children receive from direct interactions with their parents. Playing with your child with a book in front of you makes it far easier to have the kind of back and forth conversation that is so crucial for early brain development.
Early exposure to books is also the most important driver of early literacy. When children spend time around books they start to learn what a book is: not just a rectangular object that opens and closes, but a gateway to information. They learn that the markings on the pages convey meaning, and then they learn how to decipher that meaning by recognizing those markings as letters and words. And when parents are able to instill into their children a love of books and reading, a love of learning will naturally follow; because books are the language that we use to learn. That is why children who learn to read early are far more likely to do well in school, and to enjoy school, which is just as important.
Reading can be even more fun with older children, as you can start reading books that both of you will enjoy, and it remains just as important to do so! If your child has reached an age that they prefer to read on their own, you can still encourage their reading by setting aside family reading time, where everyone cozies up in the living room and reads their own books.
If you don't have any books for your child in your home, get some! The Children's Book Bank in Portland, and your local public library are great sources of free books for you and your children to enjoy! Though these resources are, unfortunately, unavailable at the time of this writing, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they should be high on the list of places to visit when the outbreak subsides for families wanting to fill their home with more books!
If you already read to your child, fantastic! Keep it up! If you haven't been reading to your child, start! It's never too early to start reading to your baby. Read a book every night at bed time, if you can. Read to them early, and often. Make books a prominent part of your child's life, and you will help them realize their full potential!