Category Archives: Learning

The Way of the Reader

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“The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention.”
Thich Nhat Hanh

 

We live in a distracting world, but we fool ourselves when we think that, by doing more than one thing at a time we are being efficient. To be mindful, fully present in the moments of our lives, sounds deceptively simple, but, especially in this electronic age, is a decided discipline.

Reading, because it slows one down and encourages uses of imagination and focus, can be a gentle bridge to serenity.

As more and more children abandon reading for electronics, neuroimaging research shows that excessive screen time damages the developing brain by creating structural and functional changes in the regions that control emotional processing and cognitive control.

Of particular concern are findings that show damage to areas of the brain that equate physical attributes, such as facial expressions and body language, with emotion. This kind of damage, combined with the rapidly growing trend to spend more time socializing online than face to face, are a cocktail that severely impacts healthy social emotional development.

Conversely, reading develops brain connectivity, particularly in the left temporal cortex, the area of the brain associated with language and in the the sensorimotor region, the region of the brain responsible for something called embodied cognition, the ability to empathize.

Studies show that daily reading also increases connections between the brain’s hemispheres.  These neural pathways aide in the growth of a multitude of complex cognitive functions.

Undoubtedly, reading makes you smart. But does it also make you wise?

When we read to our children we encourage them to be still in body and mind, to listen attentively, and to focus intently. We offer a refuge from the jangle of the modern world and give them our full attention in a joyful and quiet way.

Reading develops Theory of Mind (ToM), the ability to understand that others have needs, desires, thoughts, and feelings that may be different than one’s own. These early stirrings of compassion are the foundation on which tolerance is built.
Reading, by its very nature, takes us outside ourselves. We become emotionally and intellectually sympathetic to characters who often are quite unlike us. This creates, in the child, an attitude of acceptance in which he or she is not threatened by foreign ideas…the seeds of a peaceful world.

Like a spiritual practice, reading offers a time to reflect, to ask questions and to examine one’s own life. It helps to foster what Albert Einstein called “holy curiosity.”
It makes us receptive, open to new concepts that inspire wonder, creativity and clarity…Deep reading allows us a singular meditation even in the midst of chaos and confusion.

In an often dark world, books illuminate.
Statistics show that, after their schooling is completed, almost half of the population of the United States never reads a book again.

So, if you ever find your children reading under the covers with a flashlight, quietly close the door and let them stay up late, their growing minds and hearts filled with vivid imagery and emotion as they follow their own singular bumpy twisty  roads to enlightenment.

 

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Be Inspired

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“Sometimes you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book.” John Green – The Fault in Our Stars

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The first story I remember being read to me was Honey Bear, by Dixie Wilson. The cadence of my mother’s voice, the enchantment of the illustrations…I couldn’t get enough of this little book…its Belle Epoque watercolors and rhyming verses like the bells of fairies. It took me to a place I never knew existed, a wondrous place. I was inspired, in the true sense of the word, filled with the spirit of literature.

Yet the feelings this story aroused were not simply of joy, but also, like all epiphanies, laced with longing. I traced my fingers over the delicate illustrations…the glowing cottage in the dark woods…the garden blooming with anthropomorphic flowers. I yearned to be there, a part of this loving family in their rapturous world.

The next book that hit me like a thunderbolt was E.B.White’s Charlotte’s Web. I was seven and longed with all my heart to be Fern…raising a baby pig, sitting silent in the barn privy to the conversations of animals…brave and tender Fern, who stood up to her father to save a helpless runt…reckless Fern, swinging out from the high loft of the barn on an old rope…circumspect Fern, who deeply listened before she spoke.

As an awkward ungainly preteen, the intelligence and independence of Nancy Drew seemed out of reach. Yet, I collected, read and re-read the dozens of blue cloth covered editions…her ordinary world so extraordinary to me, the wide tree lined streets, the stately homes with their generous porches, her stalwart convictions, her steadfast fight for justice while speeding around jauntily in her roadster without a blonde hair out of place.

I abandoned Nancy when I discovered Jane. Austen’s heroines were women I could imagine myself becoming…snubbing high society’s mores while strolling through formal English gardens…exposing hypocrisy while dancing in gilded ceilinged ballrooms.

The spiritual journey that books set me on is a never ending one..sometimes an Autobahn, sometimes a labyrinth, but mostly a twisting path that splits into many side roads…from Anna Karenina to Chekov, Turgenev, and my first true love, Dostoevsky…from a short story by Guy de Maupassant to Flaubert, Victor Hugo, and Proust. Today the books on my nightstand spill into stacks on the floor.

“So many books, so little time.” Frank Zappa

Although it is important to allow a child in a library or bookstore free reign to explore, it is also a good idea for the parent to be aware, just as he or she is aware of what foods are nutritious for the body, what books develop a child’s mind in healthy ways. Publishing for children is, after all, a business, one which is heavily researched and marketed to be delivered in bright shiny packaging designed to lure your child. So be aware, there are books that exploit rather than respect the child. The next time you take your child to pick out books, be involved in the process, find stories you loved as a child and point them out. Don’t forget to get a book for yourself, too. Your example, by way of the value you place on reading, is truly inspirational.

Of course, great children’s literature doesn’t have to be fiction, wonderful nonfiction books such as those by Gail Gibbons, Charlotte Zolotow, and Tana Hoban broaden the child’s knowledge of their immediate environment and answer many of the child’s unasked questions about how the world works.

Below is a link with a list of some outstanding children’s books:

http://www.readingrockets.org/article/75-authorsillustrators-everyone-shouldknow

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Books provide escape and comfort, but they also introduce the eternal questions, Why am I here?, ponder good vs. evil, and inspire us to wonder. My daughter, in her devotion to one of literature’s greatest female role models, Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, would not take off her ruby slippers for weeks, even to go to bed.

Whether you find your inspiration in Candy Fairies or Candide, whether you are reading from a rare first edition or a Kindle, books will always be a journey of egalitarian enlightenment. Follow your heart. The world today needs inspiration.

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So please, oh please, we beg, we pray

Go throw your TV set away

And in its place you can install

A lovely bookshelf on the wall

Roald Dahl – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

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What books have inspired you or your children? I’d love to hear from you.

Fight Like A Girl

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“Bless the beasts and singing birds and  guard with tenderness small things that have no words.”  Anonymous

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As a baby girl grows, she not only listens to her inner voice to determine who she is, but to all the voices with which her culture speaks to her. It is critical that those who love her help her to believe that she is strong, smart, and valued for her unique and singular identity.

The photograph above is from the Pee Wee Pumps website which sells infant safe high heels sized 0-6 months. (This tiny model is wearing “Diva” – a Black satin high heel crib shoe  offered at $53.99 a pair. Other baby stiletto choices include Sassy, Swanky, Glamorous, and Wild Child.)

I cannot imagine, when so many women around the world are fighting and dying for their rights, the right to control their own bodies, the right to be educated, the right to be treated with the same respect as the men in their society, and the right not to live in subordinate fear, why anyone would think it was cute to dress a baby girl up in faux high heels. Putting an infant in this ridiculous outfit is objectification at its lowest form, because it is perpetuated on an innocent before she has any cognitive association to the meaning, uses, and symbolism of the product.

A parent’s eyes are the child’s first mirror. When parents encourage their little girls to conform to stereotypes they help create at deep emotional and intellectual levels feelings that lower self-expectations and self-esteem. In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir postulates that “sooner or later women will arrive at complete economic and social equality, which will bring about an inner metamorphosis.” It is respect for this fragile inner metamorphosis that is necessary in order to achieve independent, self-assured, and confident young girls.

No discussion about creating this kind of societal psychological shift is complete without mention of the stereotyping of boys. One does not exist without the other. It is just as harmful to tell a little boy that he is allowed to get angry and fight back, but it is not “manly” to cry, as it is to condone a little girl’s tears while telling her that girls don’t fight.

From Disney to Darkest Dungeons traditional gender stereotypes are constantly perpetuated in the media and in the marketing of “girl” and” boy” products.

Males are: Competitive, assertive, athletic, competent, strong, tough, aggressive, dominant, and stoic.

Females are: Emotional, romantic, sensitive, frail, passive, tentative, submissive, naïve, and seductive.

These roles, seen over and over as the child grows, normalize character traits based on gender and project unrealistic goals, from female body image to macho posturing. When someone speaks for us, we lose our voice. Boys are in danger of becoming emotionally isolated and girls lost in the never satiated need for approval.

How does a parent fight this cultural vortex and its strong emotional, social, and economic current? Believing in gender equality is all very well and good but we need to act on our beliefs in a conscious way. The most important way we teach our children is through modeling behaviors. Reject stereotypes as they arise and talk about it with your children. You will be surprised at how aware they are. Even two and three year olds will tell you that fuchsia is a girl color. Don’t just accept that. You don’t have to force your little boy to buy a fuchsia backpack, but you can ask your child why he thinks fuchsia is only for girls and point out all the amazing fuchsia colors in nature explaining that a color is just a color. Gently plant the seed and trust in your child’s innocent clarity. It is we that muddy this clarity with our pinks and blues.

Stereotyping is a kind of prejudice that leads to sexism in our personal and public lives. We are male and female, of course, and that is a wondrous thing. But, first, we are human beings born with a keen desire for pride and dignity and an innate need to dream and explore without limits.

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Dr. Seuss – Zen Master

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“So please, when you step, step with care and great tact.

And Remember that Life’s a great balancing act.”

Oh! The Places You’ll Go!  –  Dr. Seuss

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Read across American month began this week with celebrations all over the world of Dr. Seuss’ birthday. Dr. Seuss would be delightful to read even if his books were just pure fun. But, there is more than silliness under that tall striped hat.

In The Uses of Imagination, Bruno Bettelheim states that “The child intuitively comprehends that although fairy tales are unreal, they are not untrue.”

This is the nexus of the genius of Dr. Seuss – His ability to create whimsical characters with wild hair, gangly bodies, and furry feet that touch our heart with their humanity.

Dr. Seuss, born Theodore Seuss Geisel (1904), was an artist, an intellectual and a seeker of knowledge. His very first children’s book  And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street (rejected twenty seven times by publishers) encourages using one’s imagination as a way to see the world in many different ways. He poses the question: What is reality?

But Mulberry Street didn’t sell well and his career as a children’s author seemed doomed when Life Magazine published an article in 1954 that exposed America’s children’s poor reading abilities. John Hersey (author of A Separate Peace) was quoted in the article as saying that children were illiterate because the primers in school were so boring and that authors like Dr. Seuss should be writing them.

Shortly after, Theo was approached by a major publishing house and asked to create a primer using 220 vocabulary words. The result , The Cat in the Hat, made him a household name. Fame brought lucrative offers by corporations eager to exploit his popularity. The ever unconventional Geisel turned down every proposal. Even when he was wooed with an unprecedented amount of money just to use a short unpublished verse on a Christmas billboard, Theo, showing unusual moral fortitude, refused, stating that he did not want to be associated with products for sale.

Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!

What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store

What if Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!

 

And what happened then? Well…in Whoville they say,

That the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day!

How The Grinch Stole Christmas – Dr. Seuss

Throughout his career as a children’s author, Dr. Seuss emphasized the importance of integrity, caring, tenderness, courage, and the interconnectivity of all creatures.

He held his head high and he threw out his chest

And he looked at the hunters as much as to say

“Shoot if you must but I won’t run away.”

I meant what I said and I said what I meant…

An elephant’s faithful One Hundred percent!

 Horton Hatches the Egg – Dr. Seuss

 

In The Sneetches he addresses the absurdity of prejudice, and in Oh! The Places You’ll Go! he gives us, in classic Seussesque style, both warning and encouragement:

You’ll come to a place where the streets are not marked. Some windows are lighted. But mostly there darked.

But Dr. Seuss reaches a lofty zenith in his darkly beautiful and profoundly environmentally aware treatise The Lorax, who “speaks for the trees.” The author’s brilliance lies in his ability to show us a believable glimpse of a tree’s soul – albeit one with a small orange furry body and a ridiculously large yellow moustache.

Teach your children to be on the look out for them.

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“When I let go of what I am I become what I might be. When I let go of what I have, I receive what I need.” Tao Te Ching

 

“If things start happening, don’t worry, don’t stew. Just go right along

and you’ll start happening, too.” Dr. Seuss

 

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The Power of Poetry

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Poetry is often looked upon as irrelevant, a part of another era, when people had more leisure time, less distractions; when conversation was an art, and life wasn’t so frenetic. Yet, it is well documented by linguists that children who have early exposure to poetic verse and the phonemic and syllabic sensitivity it brings, have an easier time recognizing individual sounds and learning to read.

Poetry is the heartbeat of literature. Begin a rhyme in a room full of children and watch what happens…a sudden attentive stillness. Even babies, who can’t yet understand the meaning of the words, are entranced by the patterns, repetitions, and rhythms:

I am Sam

Sam I am

That Sam-I-am That Sam-I-am!

I do not like that Sam-I-am

Do you like 
green eggs and ham?

I do not like them, Sam-I-am.

I do not like 
green eggs and ham.

Dr. Seuss – Green Eggs and Ham

Rhyme draws attention to the ending sounds of individual words – alliteration to the beginning. The musical language of poetry rings and reverberates, creating in the child a fundamental joy in literature.

But should the reading of poetry end with nursery rhymes? The emotions that poetry evokes are universal. As children grow older, the reading and writing of poetry can help them to cope with vulnerable truths that are too fragile to share in other ways…love, pain, death, transcendence…feelings not likely to be discussed on Facebook:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3wvnQcm3SZE&feature=youtube_gdata_player

Reading aloud one’s own poetry creates a forum for individual expression that inspires confidence and pride. To communicate profound feelings and see that others share them is a transporting experience. In a school system that stresses the head – test taking, memorization, grades, and competition – poetry celebrates the heart. In this increasingly homogenized culture, poetry’s power lies in its originality-whether wild with rage as in Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, or soft with the tenderness of e.e.cummings’ somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond, poetry connects us intimately and immediately to our deepest feelings.

The language of poetry encourages inventiveness with words. Hope is “the thing with feathers” (Emily Dickenson). Eyes are “the window to the soul”(Shakespeare). Poetry conjures images that broaden and enlighten the mind. Metaphor and simile invite the reader to look at life in different ways, using unexpected correlations that inspire creative thinking:

The fog comes

on little cat feet

It sits looking

over harbor and city

on silent haunches

and then moves on

Carl Sandburg – Fog

From the rocking rhythm of early lullabies to the healing strength of dirges, the simple truths of poetry cross all cultures, all boundaries. Introduce poetry early to share the wonder of words with your child, but don’t lose track of how poetry’s elegant, eloquent elucidation can inspire us throughout our life

Literacy – How it Begins

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“The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.”

― Ralph Waldo Emerson

Oral language is the foundation of literacy. Within a few short months an infant’s cries become babbles, then, suddenly, talking! Soon, the young child understands the meaning of thousands of words. The acquisition of language happens at a remarkable speed. Every time a child learns something new, it becomes a part of his knowledge base. Since words are simply articulations of concepts and feelings, it is evident that a child’s vocabulary should be measured not by how many words he knows, but by what he knows about each word.

The more ideas that the child is exposed to, the deeper her understanding of certain terms: A child whose favorite book is Goodnight Moon understands the conception of the moon in a more visceral way once she has seen a bright full moonrise, or watched the moon disappear behind a cloud lined with silver. Thereafter, whenever the book is read to her, these images flood her mind allowing a richer appreciation of both the word moon and the familiar bedtime story.

One of the most giving words in the English language is the word, “Look!” When you invite a child to look, you give him the gift of your time, attention, and awareness. You joyfully invite him to join in a shared experience and with this simple word illustrate how communication bonds us. “Look! A dragonfly!” Fills the child’s mind with dragons, butterflies, fairies… “Can it breathe fire?” I have been asked. These opportunities to enlarge your child’s perspective happen daily, and books are a wonderful way to extend this rapid accumulation of knowledge. While the opportunity to see a rainbow doesn’t happen everyday, books, both fiction and non-fiction, can share the beautiful imagery of a rainbow with your child, reinforcing such basics as color recognition, but more importantly, encouraging him to see the wonder and glory of the natural world…and to look for rainbows everywhere.

Children are born scientists – curious and eager to explore. Knowledge is not a mere collection of facts, it is alive, pulsing-a process of discovery. Books provide an access to worlds that we cannot, otherwise, enter. From the bioluminescent depths of the sea to the mystical outer edges of the known universe, books satisfy the need and the love for communication that begins with the infant’s first cries.

Is an E-Book as Good for Your Child as a Traditional Book?

Mother and Child Reading Frederick Warren Freer 1849-1908
Mother and Child Reading
Frederick Warren Freer
1849-1908

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There are many delightful depictions of stories available electronically.But are they as worthwhile to your child as reading a traditional book? Childhood Development experts have not yet determined the answer to this question due to the fact that e-books have not been around long enough to collect the data necessary to come to a decision. The topic is of high interest to educators worldwide, and numerous studies have been conducted.

At best, reading to a child is not a static activity. Children feel warm, secure, and loved sitting next to a parent or grandparent with a book. They receive a not so subliminal message that books are valuable, and that so are they. This feeling can last a lifetime, conjuring pleasant and joyful memories associated with books.

Even very young children learn quickly how a book works; front to back, page to page, top to bottom. They see as they follow the story, that those strange shapes called letters have something to do with spoken words. More importantly, they are not distracted by the bells and whistles designed to enhance the e-book experience, they are free to comment, to ask questions, to ponder new ideas and make connections. The adult reader can extend these connections and make them personal. “Remember when we went to the zoo like Curious George?” “Was the lion scary?” “How many monkeys are in the tree?” “What colors are the flowers?” There are countless ways to extend even the simplest of books.

Only the parent knows the child’s most passionate interests. If your child is fascinated by anything from the solar system to insects, you can use this knowledge to make the book that you are reading a more interesting and individual experience….an illustration of a butterfly can lead to a conversation about metamorphosis, and, more importantly, it can lead you outside…to look for butterflies, to talk about what butterflies like…”Do they like snow or sunshine?” “Do they like gardens or city streets?” “Do you think that they would like to be caught and put in a box?” “Why?” Fiction leads naturally to non-fiction. There are a multitude of beautifully photographed scientific books for children. I like the ACORN series, published by Capstone Global Library, because it works equally well for toddlers as early readers.

E-books have their place, but use them sparingly. I see so many children sitting in shopping carts or at restaurants with their brightly colored devices. I’m sure that these children are mostly watching high quality applications. But, they are missing the grocery store! They are missing the myriad opportunities for language that present themselves outside of the home, starting with, simply, conversation.

Reading is not only about being entertained. A child can learn much about nutrition from seeing you read the ingredients of a cereal box. He can learn about choices, and how you used reading to make them. Most importantly, your child is present in the real world rather than a virtual one, absorbing, as children so readily do, the connections between the words they see everywhere, from street signs to menus, and how they are used to communicate important information.

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“I immediately felt a sense of nostalgia that I haven’t felt in a long time. The scent of physical books—the paper, the ink, the glue—can conjure up memories of a summer day spent reading on a beach, a fall afternoon in a coffee shop, or an overstuffed chair by a fireplace as rain patters on a windowsill.”

New York Times Tech Blogger – Nick Bilton-on wandering into a West Village bookstore.

Read for Health

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While no good parent would feed a child nothing but junk food, unfortunately, many parents do not pay attention to what their child is ingesting through the seemingly always accessible electronic media. We all know that entertainment has become increasingly violent. It is not as often addressed that it has become alarmingly superficial and mean spirited. If a child is being fed these messages for many hours a day it becomes a daunting task to undo the damage. The average American child uses some kind of electronic device for 7 hours a day while the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than one hour per day for 3 to 5 year olds, two hours for 6 to 18 year olds, and none at all for children under the age of two.

Studies show that immoderate use of television and video games lead to attention deficits, anxiety, and difficulty with concentration. It is very important that parents monitor the time and the quality of all electronics their child is engaged in. Take the time to determine if your child, through this media, is being encouraged to develop the kind of character traits that you hope she will begin to emulate.

Books offer a respite against the frenetic world of electronic entertainment. They introduce characters that are more than just vehicles designed for bouts of combat. Books slow your child down and increase his attention span. They nurture imagination and creativity and, unlike passive screen time, make demands on your child to think deeply. They are an important part of a healthy diet for your child’s mind.

How Fiction Helps a Child to Develop Empathy

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Anyone who has read to a child has noticed the range of emotions that cross the child’s face as he listens raptly to a story. Worldwide, scientific researchers in the field of neuroscience have uncovered irrefutable proof that those who read fiction regularly develop a deeper understanding of others, which leads to the ability to see situations from different points of view – the quality of empathy.

Of particular interest is a study conducted in 2010 by Dr. Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University, using preschool children. He and his colleagues discovered a direct corollary between how much a child is read to and the child’s Theory of Mind. Theory of Mind (ToM) is the ability of an individual to understand his or her own mental states, and to realize that others also have minds with perhaps different beliefs and desires. It is believed that ToM is an innate quality in human beings that generally takes many years of social interaction to develop. Having a keen sense of ToM is an abstract quality, and while children learn more readily with their senses, understand the concrete, and live in the present, reading about other’s thoughts and feelings helps a child to take the leap from the actual to the abstract.

We laugh at characters who are silly, but we also feel concern for characters who are sad, lonely, afraid, or hurt. A child, while reading, “practices” these feelings, acquiring an early knowledge of compassion. In a book such as The Rainbow Fish, children are exposed to the idea of sharing versus not sharing. How does it make you feel when you share? When someone shares with you? When someone doesn’t share with you? Books can evoke powerful emotions that children can safely and securely contend with, creating a sensitivity to emotional nuance often missed in the heat of the argument over whose turn it is.

Stories help a child to learn that sad feelings can be soothed, that happy feelings can be shared, and that these feelings are universal. We all celebrate, over and over again as we reread, that Harold, wielding only a purple crayon, will figure out all by himself how to get home safely, that the little blue engine will make it up and over the hill, and that wicked witches can be defeated by little girls in sparkly shoes.

Words Connect Us

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The phrase “Use your words” in relation to encouraging children to express themselves has been around long enough to have become an iconic idiom. Normally it is used in conjunction with reminding a child that hitting, biting, throwing one’s self on the floor, etc….are not effective ways to communicate. But have you ever thought about saying to a child who is behaving properly,“Use your words”?

This blog is about the importance of establishing a love of literature early in life and the connection that reading has to the developing mind. Curiosity, creative thinking, imagination, attention span, and even social skills are all heightened through early exposure to books. Words connect us. Conversations, whether with a 3 year old or an 80 year old, inspire us and help us to see from different perspectives.

After all, what are books if not voices on the page…voices communicating stories to anyone who cares to listen. The author’s voice may tell stories of fairies, baby animals, princesses, dragon fighting, how to make a kite, or what lives under the sea…whether fiction or non-fiction, a book explores new thoughts that expand the heart as well as the mind.

All day long children are bombarded with peer pressure, expectations to perform, to obey, to excel, to be quiet when they feel like talking, to talk when they feel like being quiet. They are enticed with glossy packaging and advertisements designed to convince them that happiness lies in material possessions. Reading is free of all that. A book takes a child to a simpler, less intrusive  world. It sets their mind to dreaming and makes them smart.

What a beautiful gift to give a child, and it is as simple as using your words.