Updated: Sep 10
By: Patricia R. Hamilton, MS, LMFT
Many of us are a few weeks into "social distancing," as we shelter in place with our families to weather the pandemic. For some, working from home, not to mention being home all day long with our kids, is a novel, and perhaps a challenging experience. No school, no baby sitters or day care, no church, no visits from friends or grandparents, and try as we might to make it fun, boredom and cabin fever are real challenges.
As one day bleeds into the next, kids begin to bicker, the food you bought for the whole week is lasting two days tops, and the only time your three year-old stops fussing is when you begrudgingly give him your smart phone.
To get any work done or just have a little peace and quiet, you either have to temporarily suspend House Rules, like the heavy restrictions you normally place on screen use, TV, video games, and the phone, or enact "Marshall Law" to manage the outcries. These are very unusual times that require unusual measures, right? You can feel yourself caving-in to their demands.... Here are just a few reasons to help fortify and encourage you to "stand the wall" against screens and use reading and other old school remedies for managing the days ahead.
Reading to your children at any age is the single most important thing you can do to support their development!
Early Childhood Development
During normal times, parents want to know and follow best practices for screen use for computers, phones, television, xbox, etc. Scientists all around the world continue to research the positive and negative influences of screens on the developing brain. We are still gathering, in real time, new data for how screen use is fundamentally impacting child development, learning, and the social/emotional behavior of people at all ages.
We've known for a while that the brain develops fastest in the first five years of life. And, at birth, humans have the most neurons in their brain than they will ever have. Depending on the stimulation they receive from caregivers and the environment, the connections between these neurons are either put to use and reinforced, or, unused, they are naturally pruned away.
Although our brains have the capacity to change and learn at any age, it is most efficient, with the greatest number of neurons, in the first five years of life. This means that the early childhood experience is critically important to brain development.
Leaders in the field of reading and literacy, have delivered some new research from examining the brains of healthy 3 to 5 year-olds, who have not yet attended kindergarten. Looking at what improves or diminishes the brain's "readiness" for reading and learning, has revealed two compelling data points:
Children who are read to daily, show increased growth and organization of white matter in the language centers of the brain, the areas needed to support learning in school.
Children spending two hours a day playing on screens, show massive underdevelopment and disorganization of white matter in the language center of the brain, needed for learning in school.
The Importance of Reading to Young Children
This research provides more neurobiological evidence of the potential benefits of reading to your child, and the detriments of too much screen time on the brain development of preschoolers 3 to 5. One study's lead author and pediatrician, Dr. John Hutton, contends that children who have more stimulating experiences that help "grow and organize" white matter in the brain, have a huge advantage when they enter school.
Cognitive testing shows that kids who use screens for more than one hour a day have poorer emerging literacy skills, less ability to use expressive language, and test lower in the ability to rapidly name objects. Children who frequently read books with their caregivers scored higher.
New data also indicates that playing with toys that children need to manipulate, using imagination, and playing outdoors, not only improves cognitive scores related to literacy, but also improves function in many other parts of the brain as well.
Reading to your child, at any age, continues to be the most important thing you can do for their wellbeing and brain development. Even when children can read on their own, it is still beneficial. Experts contend there is no "best" way to read to your child. It is actually more about, showing up and doing it that counts.
The National Institute for Literacy has compiled some science-based suggestions for encouraging your child to love books and reading.
How to Encourage Children to Love Books and Reading
Start from birth reading to your child
Sing the ABC song
Have your child use their imagination and make up stories, asking lots of questions about the invented tales
Select books with interesting characters
Have your child point to pictures and words and repeat them
Most important, enjoy yourself
Remember: Growth and organization of white matter is critical for communication across all parts of the brain, boosting functionality and the ability to learn. Without a well-developed communication system, the brain's processing speed slows and learning suffers.
NO screens for children 0 to 5 would be ideal, for a whole variety of developmental reasons, including brain development. Reading to your child is the best stimulation for language and literacy development, while also providing rich opportunities for parent/child connection, rituals, routine, and bonding.
Screens (of any kind) for children this age should not exceed an hour a day. The same is true for years 5 to 10. Stand the wall parents! Read, play, build, pretend, dress up, cook, clean, run, ride bikes, swing, garden, hide and seek, cards, and count. Cuddle, sing, eat together, pray, and organize. Teach, set expectations, and model conscientiousness, process, and service to the family, creating a solid foundation upon which your child can build.
Reading to your child is the hallmark of these best practices.