Screens vs. Laps? Neuroscience Has the Answer

Dear Parents Part 2: Building the Invisible Toolbox with Love

In Dear Parents Part 1 we explored the research proving that the years before a child enters school are critical in predicting outcomes. Here’s what we know. Every child enters kindergarten with a lunchbox in one hand and an Invisible Toolbox in the other. If a child has been read to daily throughout the preschool years, that toolbox will overflow with all the pre-literacy tools they need in order to thrive. For those who have not been read to, their toolboxes will be empty and school will be a struggle.

Busy, overwhelmed parents of infants and preschoolers may wonder if technology can assist in building their child’s Invisible Toolbox.

Many parents are indeed availing themselves of this option as evidenced in the popularity of Netflix’s most highly rated show of 2020, CoComelon. An animated streaming show of nursery rhymes and children’s songs, CoComelon is aimed at the preschool set. In 2021, it was the most-watched YouTube channel in the United States and second most streamed show in the world.

So, the question parents need to ask is this. Does it matter whether my child learns their nursery rhymes watching CoComelon on a screen…or on my lap having a cuddle?

It’s an important question and, fortunately, neuroscience has the answer for us. Have a watch:

Subscribe to my YouTube channel for future videos in the “Dear Parents” series to learn about the tools you’ll build in your child’s Invisible Toolbox when you read to them. Or, you can read about them in The Invisible Toolbox: The Power of Reading to Your Child from Birth to Adolescence, available at these sellers.

Dear Parents…

What teachers wish the parents of their future students knew.

“Any kindergarten teacher can tell you: students do not start school with the same language and literacy skills.” The Children’s Reading Foundation

Did you know that 75% of students who begin school with skills below grade level will never catch up?

As an elementary school teacher, I often wished that I could roll back time and meet the parents of my future students at the door of the maternity ward with a stack of books…

Here’s how parents can ensure their child is ready for kindergarten with the language and literacy skills they need in order to be successful…

Thanks, Read Aloud Nebraska!

A widespread internet outage last Friday at Read Aloud Nebraska‘s annual conference threatened to derail my virtual keynote presentation. Yikes! This is the type of unforeseen event that every conference planner and speaker dreads. But Megan, the expert IT specialist on site, cooly and calmly found a work-around. She used her iPhone as a mobile hotspot to share my talk and enable me to call in for a discussion with our in-person audience. Great save, Megan!

I love sharing about The Invisible Toolbox and why reading to our children is one of the greatest gifts a parent can give. Here’s an excerpt that explains how the building of every child’s invisible toolbox begins with love and connection…

Your Baby and Nursery Rhymes

Why You Should Ignore Their Sometimes Dark Origins and Read Them Aloud Anyway

“Hickory hickory dock, the mouse ran up the clock…”

I recited these words to my fifth grade literature class one day and paused expectantly, waiting for them to finish the sentence.

Blank stares all around.

Then a lone voice piped up: “The clock struck one, the mouse ran down…hickory hickory dock.”

Three cheers for that child’s parent!

The subject of nursery rhymes had come up, and I wanted to see if my hunch was true. I’ve known for years that many parents were no longer reading nursery rhymes to their little ones, but it still shocks me a bit to realize most children don’t have these classic jingles stored in their memory banks.

You might be thinking…

Does it really matter?

Aren’t these archaic ditties Eurocentric? (Sorry, worse. They’re British.*)

Aren’t they historic in nature and sometimes deal with awful, grown-up things like adultery (“Jack and Jill”), military armaments (“Humpty Dumpty”), and the plague (“Ring-Around-The-Rosy”)?

Yes, they are. And yes, they do. Many have been around since the 14th century. Some of their histories are traceable, some not.

The point is, none of that matters. Not to your little one anyway.

What does matter is that when you take them onto your lap and read or sing to them, they won’t be wondering about the symbolic meanings of these verses or their historic origins.

What your child will experience, though, is the joy and beauty of rich language.

The rhythm and rhyme of catchy lyrics that will be theirs forever.

The fascination of a gigantic clothed egg perched on a wall and the strangeness of live blackbirds baked in a pie.

I highly recommend Scott Gustafson’s collection, gorgeously illustrated
with depictions of children of all colors and ethnicities.

Of all the picture book choices that you have as a parent, reading Mother Goose is one of the best because you’ll give your child the following:

  • Joy. As dark as some of their origins may be, these verses exude an underlying energy, resilience, and sense of fun.
  • Vocabulary, the number one predictor of school success. Your child will be exposed to rich language that would not typically come across their radar.
  • The ability to rhyme. Did you know that some older children simply cannot recognize rhyming words? They have little experience hearing lyrical oral language so struggle to identify or produce words that rhyme. The ability to do so is an essential component of learning to sound out and identify words.
  • Cultural literacy. Familiarity with the traditional stories of a society’s culture is an important aspect of a child’s education. Children today know “Shrek,” but few are familiar with the classic fairy tales and legends that “Shrek’s” characters are based upon. They’ve seen “Tangled,” but have never heard or read Rapunzel. I believe that the nursery rhymes that have entertained children for centuries fall into the category of things an educated person should know.
  • Connection. As always, with any shared reading you do, you will nurture feelings of warmth and love between you and your child that will enable them to thrive.

Your child’s future teachers will bless you if you share nursery rhymes with your little one because they will arrive at school with their toolbox overflowing, primed and ready to be taught to read.

Be warned, however. Once you begin reading them, you will repeat. Again. And again. And again. And that, my friends, is exactly what your child needs.

(*Full disclosure: That was totally tongue-in-cheek. I am an unabashed Anglophile.)

Note: Because you may need some relief from the multiple rereadings you’ll do, check out Ricky Gervais’s take on nursery rhymes. Just for fun. (Language warning.)

If you’re the intellectually curious type and want to know more about their dark origins, you’ll find some excellent articles here and here.

Finally, if you’re wondering whether CoComelon (Netflix’s #1 show and the animated means through which many children are exposed to some of these classics now) is a reliable substitute that ticks the box, check out my recent article on just that question here.

Homecoming 2021!

A Virtual Vist to Pigeon Forge

Imagine this: a high quality picture book arrives in your mailbox each month with your child’s name on it, from the time you bring them home from the hospital until they begin kindergarten—absolutely free.

That’s exactly what Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library is in the business of doing with the help of the Dollywood Foundation and countless affiliates around the world. To date, Dolly’s Library reaches several continents and has given away over 160 million books.

Reaching children with books during those critical 0-5 years when 90% of brain growth occurs has a lasting impact on a child’s ability to thrive.

This fact and the subsequent outcomes of doing so—or not—that I’ve observed in children over a long teaching career are what motivated me to write The Invisible Toolbox: The Power of Reading to Your Child from Birth to Adolescence.

An Exciting Invitation

So it was my absolute pleasure and honor to be invited to present at the Imagination Library’s recent Homecoming. My topic: what happens on the other side of kindergarten when a child has been read to consistently.

This biennial event usually gathers hundreds of Imagination Library affiliates from around the world in Dolly’s hometown of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. This year it took place virtually due to Covid-19.

An excerpt from “Why Reading to Your Child is One of the Greatest Gifts a Parent Can Give”

The Imagination Library is an organization for which I could not have greater respect and admiration.

Its mission is simple. Give parents an essential tool they need—books—so that they can share the joy of reading, fill their child’s invisible toolbox, and enable them to be kindergarten-ready.

Dolly Parton’s Dream

The genius of the program is that the book comes directly to the child. Their name is on the gift, and it arrives without fail in their mailbox each month. By the time a child begins kindergarten they’ve accumulated their own personal library.

If you haven’t seen it yet, check out The Library That Dolly Built: Celebrating the People Who Made Dolly’s Dream Come True, now available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, and Cable on Demand.

You will be amazed and inspired by the story of how the Imagination Library grew from Dolly’s dream of helping the Appalachian children in her hometown of Tennessee into a worldwide enterprise for all children.

It’s a wholly uplifting story that will fill you with hope and remind you of what’s possible when people of good faith collaborate on a mission as important as this one.

Just be sure to bring your kleenex. You may need it.

What Preschool Parents Need to Know About Netflix’s #1 Show

CoComelon is No Substitute for Reading to a Child on Your Lap

Last month Forbes reported that CoComelon, the animated nursery rhyme-themed channel aimed at children under 4, was the #1 show on Netflix in 2020.

According to the article, “There hasn’t ever been a hit like CoComelon on the world’s most popular streaming service…”

Think of that—CoComelon beat out The Queen’s Gambit, Bridgerton, and Cobra Kai, among other titles that helped the world survive a year of lockdown.

Apparently, CoComelon provided a breather for parents of preschoolers during the pandemic too. Common Sense Media describes the series as “music videos that are appropriate for the very youngest of viewers, and touch on typical preschool themes.” I’ll leave it to you to explore the reviews that add up to just 3 out of 5 stars.

What I can do, though, is sympathize with parents who reach out to distractions like this. I can well understand how tempting it must be for a harried parent to park an infant or toddler in front of a screen for this ‘age-appropriate’ entertainment.

We all know that some days parenting young children are simply about survival—but relying on screen entertainment like CoComelon has consequences that parents need to be aware of.

Watching animated nursery rhymes on a screen is no substitute for reading to a child on your lap.

What Brain Research Tells Us About Screens vs. Reading

Dr. John Hutton, pediatrician and director of the Reading and Literacy Discovery Center at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, and his team have studied the neurological effects of screens and reading on preschoolers. Findings show that the brains of children with less screen time had better-developed white matter tracts, the pathways involving language and executive functions, hence these children also had “higher language, executive and composite early literacy skills.”

According to Hutton, children placed in front of screens lose out on nurturing experiences, and this deficit explains the lag in brain development.

Human beings are wired to connect. From the cradle to the grave, the evidence is in that the deepest human desire, after life itself, is the longing to connect…The blueprint for connection is written in our cells from the very beginning, and our understanding of this has enormous implications for the way we parent.

Kim Jocelyn Dickson: “Build it With Love,” The Invisible Toolbox: The Power of Reading to Your Child from Birth to Adolescence

The toolbox of pre-literacy skills that we build for our child when we sit down and read with them is grounded in this connection. Love and nurturing is what builds the critical brain framework that every child needs in order to thrive. Screens simply cannot provide this.

Sharing nursery rhymes is important—and highly recommended for developing essential pre-literacy skills. But the way we do so matters.

Practical Take-aways for Parents

  • Begin reading to your infant as soon as you bring them home, and do so daily. Cuddle, read expressively, engage interactively as your child is able, and have fun!
  • Introduce screens only once you’ve established this lovely connection through daily reading. Limit the time. Ideally, watch with them.
  • Continue reading to your child daily as long as you can. You’ll nurture your connection, create precious memories, and fill their ‘invisible toolbox’ with all the pre-literacy tools they need to be ready for school.

So, the next time you’re exhausted and tempted to park your little one in front of a screen, grab a book instead, sink into a comfortable chair with them, and enjoy the wordplay and silliness of those ancient nursery rhymes together—on the page.

The Gift of Reading and Wellness

May was a busy blur of book talks and presentations. While they’re still happening virtually, life does seem to be opening up. Hopefully, soon more of these will happen in person!

One of my favorite audiences to speak to are the parents of young children. Earlier this month I had a great time visiting and sharing with my friend and former colleague Ji Wang’s Saturday morning PTA Wellness group at the elementary school where she is principal. The sign above hangs on the fence right next to their parent drop off/pick-up circle. How clever is that?

Here’s a quick excerpt from my presentation:

If you’re interested in setting up a presentation, book talk, or class for your school or parenting group, I’d love to hear from you! Soon-to-be and new parents, it’s never too early to learn about one of the greatest gifts you’ll ever give your child.

Too Cool for School No More

Tweaks Parents Can Make to Help Their Struggling Readers

My fifth grade students were just settling into our literature and writing class one day when Sammy slipped out of his seat, walked up to my standing desk, stuck this post-it onto the surface right next to my computer, and without a word, turned and sat down again.

Nothing could have surprised me more. Or warmed my heart more. Sammy had begun the year doing everything he could to remain invisible and detached. Lack of engagement, almost zero class participation, little homework completion. I knew he felt vulnerable as his skills were poor.

But somewhere along the way, he experienced a turn-around. Had my class suddenly become more engaging? My teaching more inspiring? It would have been gratifying to think I’d made such a difference, but I knew that wasn’t it.

Something else had made a difference though. Here’s the story of what happened.

Many thanks to Don Winn, leading dyslexia expert and award-winning author, for inviting me to share this story.

Hope for the Struggling Reader

Parents, you are more powerful than you know…

Did you know that according to the latest NAEP—our nation’s report card that tests students in fourth and eighth grade every two years—65% of fourth graders and 66% of eighth graders in the United States did not perform as proficient readers? (NAEP 2019)

Equally as concerning, research tells us that 75% of students who do not read on grade level by third grade will never catch up. (Children’s Reading Foundation)

Why is it that 3 out of 4 students will remain behind? And what is happening with students in the 25% who do manage to make gains and become proficient readers?

Observations I’ve made in over three decades teaching elementary school children convince me that there is one variable that’s most powerful and effective in moving children into reading success.

In our latest conversation, author and dyslexia expert Don Winn and I discuss these issues: why children struggle and how they can be helped.

Stories as Sanctuary During Times of Stress

Plus: How Reading to Your Child Literally Builds an Internal Infrastructure in the Brain that Becomes the Foundation for All Learning

Part Two of My Interview with Author Don Winn

We discuss how stories can be a sanctuary for your child and you, particularly during difficult times…and what it means to build your child’s “invisible toolbox.”

If you prefer to watch instead of read, scroll down to the full interview, “The Power of Stories During Difficult Times,” posted December 2020.