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Storytime's hidden power: How reading transforms more than language skills
Angela Whited, events manager and storyteller, reads and entertains during story time at Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul, Minn., on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2016. The bookstore hosts story time twice a week. - photo by Chandra Johnson
The courtyard outside Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul, Minnesota, is packed with strollers Wednesday mornings as dozens of moms, grandmothers, nannies and children file into the childrens bookstore.

Its standing-room only for the main event storytime, and bookseller Lily Tschudi-Campbell is playing to a captive audience as she pulls out the first selection, Yellow Time, a picture book by Lauren Stringer.

It looks like fun, but Tschudi-Campbell and Red Balloon events manager Angela Whited know theyre offering a lot more than entertainment.

Whatever kids are doing, theyre learning, Whited said. Theyre little sponges.

According to the American Association of Pediatrics, what kids are learning are crucial early literacy and language skills the building blocks of development. These skills are so important the AAP officially recommended reading to children from birth and said that doing so is as important as breast-feeding and getting vaccinations to ensure children get the best start in life.

Being read to has been linked to all sorts of benefits for kids, including brain development tied to mental imagery, which some researchers think contributes to reading comprehension.

Yet, while reading is such a seemingly simple and essential part of child development, not all children are read to early or often, putting them at a developmental and intellectual disadvantage.

We know that even in advantaged families, where the income level is above the poverty line, 60 percent read to their children every day, said Dr. Pamela High, a Rhode Island-based pediatrician who wrote the AAPs recommendation. Its an essential component of a childs development, but its still not a universal practice.

An infants brain is developing very rapidly at a rate it never will again, said Nikki Shearman, director of communications for literacy nonprofit group Reach Out and Read. The first three years of life are a critical window where if the brain is not stimulated, those connections will be lost.

Aside from building necessary language and learning skills, storytime has other hidden benefits as science and literacy experts are just beginning to understand, namely, how reading helps children develop beyond mere language and how it can strengthen families.

The real power of this is that its an intervention that occurs in the parents lap, High said. It can be one of the more emotionally impactful experiences between children and parents.

More than language

While lauded for helping children to learn necessary verbal and learning skills, literacy experts and pediatricians say reading to children from birth benefits children long after theyre reading on their own.

A study published in Pediatrics in 2010 found that children who were not read to as kids were at an increased risk of not being ready for school by age 6 and were also more likely to experience socioeconomic disadvantages into adulthood, including low self-esteem, depression, behavior problems, social isolation and were five times more likely to report poor health as adults.

The study also listed the most common obstacles that prevent parents from reading to kids as having three or more children in the family, two or more moves in the same year, parental depression and the inability to speak English.

Its completely understandable that parents dealing with social or psychological pressures may have a harder time prioritizing storytime with their children. Even for families that don't contend with serious issues, it's arguably harder than it used to be to find time for reading when the majority of married couples with children see both spouses working.

Yet, it's when families contend with problems that children need storytime the most, Shearman said.

When theres lots of stress in the family, especially if theyre low-income where the parents are stressed about supporting the family or if theres abuse, that toxic stress affects children, Shearman said. Engaging with children with an activity like reading is a way of combatting that toxic stress.

Harvard Universitys Center for the Developing Child has researched how toxic stress that is, stress that results in excessive or prolonged stress responses like prolonged stress hormone elevation and elevated heart rate can inhibit child development. The ability to deal with emotional stressors of any intensity is what child development experts call resilience and many recommend reading as a primary source of how to learn it.

Harvard suggests that supportive interactions like the kind fostered when parents and children read together can help bring children's emotions back to normal.

Karen Petty, an early childhood development professor at Texas Womens University, wrote a report in 2012 about how childrens books are the perfect venue to teach kids emotional resilience because children learn by absorbing and mimicking behavior of the book characters. Petty called these life lessons found in some childrens books protective factors," such as children learning how to deal with their emotions as the book characters learn how to cope with their own.

Although we cant prevent adversity or unpleasant experiences from happening to children, we can minimize the distress they feel by teaching them a vocabulary of emotions, Petty wrote.

Whited also said reading to kids has more minor social benefits, like patience and expanding their attention spans what she called life practice.

Theyre basic human skills. People forget that, Whited said. Its language development, but it's also sitting, listening, taking turns all the old-timey good stuff weve done for thousands of years but have recently forgotten to make time for.

Stronger families

Although storytime is thought of as a childrens activity, experts say its just as valuable for parents and families.

It can be a way to form those important connections very early, High said. Reading is something fathers especially can partake in thats important because they sometimes dont feel as involved when their children are very, very young.

High says she often recommends storytime to new parents, both for bonding and for comfort when they may feel helpless. She always recommends James Marshalls picture book George and Martha to new parents after one of her infant patients had a seizure at birth and was placed in the ICU.

It was so sad, they were so terrified, like anyone would be, so I gave them this book and told them to read to her, High said. Reading is something parents can always do, even when they cant do much else.

High attended the little girls fourth birthday party years later to find the parents were still reading the book to her at bedtime.

While many parents phase out bedtime stories when their children can read for themselves, theres some evidence that keeping the practice through elementary school may forge deep emotional bonds between child and parent.

While that may seem odd or unnecessary to many parents, it wouldnt necessarily be unwelcome. A 2014 study from Scholastic found that 50 percent of 6-8 year-olds reported that they wished their parents had not stopped reading books to them once they learned to read and 86 percent said they enjoyed being read to.

In a 2010 New York Times article, New Jersey college student Kristen Brozina detailed the importance of she and her fathers tradition of reading together, extending drastically from infancy to her first day of college in 2006. Brozina said having her father, a single school librarian, read to her every night reinforced their relationship during family tragedies and her teen years, when most parents and children are at odds.

In high school, I had friends who never talked to their parents. It never occurred to me not to, Brozina told The Times. If someone takes care of you, you want to be with them.

Brozinas story might be an extreme case, but it demonstrates what Shearman says is the most important takeaway for any child: Connection to the first and most important people in their lives, their parents.

Connecting and engaging with your child is the most important thing you can do and reading is a very practical way to do that, even if they dont understand the words yet, Shearman said. I think all parents want to do whats best for their kids. All it takes is 20 minutes a day to make a world of difference.