All Dressed Up with Nowhere to Go: Why Reading and Imaginative Play Matter
It’s World Book Day and children in many schools in the UK and around the world are dressing up as their favourite book characters, sharing their favourite books with friends, or just reading and reading and reading some more!
In Hong Kong, where schools have been closed since the end of January and will remain closed until at least late April, World Book Day festivities have been cancelled, postponed, or amended to online or digital variations. Nevertheless, this period of school closure has been an opportune reminder to me of why reading—and reading to young children in particular—is so valuable.
I have always loved reading, and as an educator, I have always believed firmly in the power of reading with children to instil a love of learning, curiosity about the world, and empathy for others. I love doing read-alouds of books or excerpts with students of all ages. I love hearing what resonates with them as readers, discussing and analysing the text, and seeing how they learn from and are inspired by books as they write stories of their own.
The benefits of reading and early literacy on vocabulary and language development are well documented. As a writing teacher, I can spot the writers and storytellers who have a regular reading habit from their familiarity with basic story structure and what we’d call “literary language”. When asked about classes for very young children, though, I tell parents that the two very best things they can do to support their young children's literacy development are: 1) to read to them regularly and often; and 2) to let them play.
Reading Rituals to Connect with our Kids
In reading aloud to children from birth--sitting down together with a book on the sofa or snuggling in bed--we are first and foremost creating a ritual and a habit of connecting over books. This became clearest to me when I became a parent myself.
In an age of multitasking and digital distractions, I'd say being 100% present and giving my kids my full attention is one of the hardest parts of parenting. But in my household, story time is sacred.
Story time is when the voices come out. Story time is laughing together over the antics of Piggie and Gerald. Story time is answering the gazillion questions of what this means or that means, talking about what's that in the picture, why he's doing that or where she's going next.
Drawing Connections to Daily Life
When I attended Bring Me A Book's First Teachers family literacy training with reading specialist Julie Fowlkes, one of the key takeaways for me was our role as parents in helping children draw connections between the world of books and their daily lives. Sure, teachers can talk with children about the characters, the setting, and the events of the story. We can relate the story to things we've done or talked about together as a class. But parents can bring to bear the little details of children's daily lives and experiences that help them relate to the characters and stories--even if the discussion is about how their home, their bath time or their birthday celebration is different. These touch points help children make meaningful connections with texts and see how stories both reflect and depart from real life.
And Connecting Life to Literature
The connections and conversations about books can go both ways. We can find connections to our children's lives to help them understand books, and we can find books to help our children understand life. Children who read (or are read to) widely have the library of books they’ve read as reference as they navigate life. Curious George Goes to the Hospital was a story my son had read many times before his younger brother was admitted to the hospital one night after his bedtime, but it had new meaning and eased his anxieties significantly when we could say, “Remember how George went for an x-ray when he went to the hospital? That’s what your brother did too, and Mummy put on one of those heavy aprons, just like the man with the yellow hat.”
Source Material and Language for Imaginative Play
Perhaps even more than books, I’ve seen how young children make sense of their lives through imaginative play when given the freedom and opportunity to do so. They run through scenarios mimicked from daily life, playing different roles, re-enacting conversations, exploring how things work and a little “What if?” As adults, we might see a child with a seemingly new interest in dolls or stuffed animals only to find out from Mum that they’re expecting a new member of the family.
Life experiences inspire children’s imaginative play, but so can books. In these weeks of being mostly home-bound except for a few excursions to the park, imaginative play has provided a tremendous outlet for my children. While they’ve always enjoyed pretend play, the limited opportunity to go elsewhere has amped up the imaginative play to new levels. Every day, my husband asks, “Where have you gone today?” and is regaled with photos of makeshift costumes and stories of everything from pirate adventures and knights defending the castle to birthday parties and grocery shopping by the “family”. I’ve seen how stories and life experiences intertwine to create all-new (and elaborate) scenarios, with the scripts for each inspired largely from books we’ve read. After all, how else does a four-year-old learn the phrases “Ahoy, matey!” or “Fire in the hole!”? (Thanks, Arr, Moustache Baby!) Even superhero adventures featuring Batman and Spider-Man typically involve foiling the plans of Hefty Hugh and Lanky Len, the foolhardy villains of Julia Donaldson’s What the Ladybird Heard.
My son has discovered that with imagination and some inventive cardboard construction, he can go anywhere and everywhere.
What has amazed me is the level of immersion. There seem to be limitless variations on each theme and endless energy to devote to these adventures in and around the confines of the living room, dining area and my son’s bedroom—and I couldn’t be more grateful. The initial questions about why we can’t go here, there (or anywhere really) have largely subsided, and my son has discovered that with imagination and some inventive cardboard construction, he can go anywhere and everywhere. Necessity is the mother of invention, right?
Perhaps the Cheshire Cat was onto something when he said, “Imagination is the only weapon in the war against reality.” Maybe us grown-ups should load some into our arsenals, along with (or instead of?) face masks and toilet paper!