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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
Part One of “The Power of Stories During Difficult Times:” My Conversation with Author Don Winn
Last month author Don Winn hosted a chat with me about the comfort reading can bring to children (and the rest of us) particularly during hard times. 2020 may be in the rearview mirror, but our challenges don’t seem to be letting up just yet. A daily dive into a good book with your child can be just the thing to bring you both comfort—and pay longterm dividends.
Here’s the video interview you can watch again or, if you prefer, read.
As the stressors of 2020 continue to increase—COVID-19, distance learning, an election, and a brutal fire season—filling our children’s and our own need for a daily space of respite is vital…
It’s more important than ever for (our children) to spend a part of their day lost in the pages of a good book.
LA ParentMagazine, November 2020
I had no idea, when I wrote “Escape through Reading” for the current issue of LA Parent Magazine last month, how deeply the truth of it would resonate this past week.
As my homeroom checked in via Zoom during morning meeting last week, fires were raging nearby and the tension and anxiety my fifth graders were feeling was palpable. One student and her family had evacuated their home at dawn, and so she joined our class from a hotel. Other students’ families were packing essentials and awaiting possible evacuation orders.
Fortunately, this is a group that feels safe with one another, so they could talk about what was happening and express their feelings fairly openly.
I don’t think I ever felt so grateful for the subject I teach as I did that day. The plan that morning was to finish reading a chapter together from the John D. Fitzgerald novel The Great Brain in which Tom, the novel’s title bearer, hatches a plot to get the harsh new teacher fired by framing him as a secret drinker. Talk about a great escape.
It was a relief for all of us, I think, to disappear into small town Utah of the 1890s to find out whether Tom could pull off his outrageous caper. He always seems to show the adults what’s what, which, of course, the kids love.
Diving into the story we learned that life wasn’t necessarily easy for kids back in the 19th century either. You’d have attended a one-room schoolhouse with kids of all ages and, if you got into trouble the teacher would paddle you—right in front of everybody! And so we rooted for this audacious and brilliant ten-year old hero who never fails to entertain and astonish us.
For a brief time we were transported far from our own troubling reality and enjoyed a respite from the fires, the virus, and even the distance that separates us.
What I’ve been reminded of again and again during this season of remote learning is that shared literature has the power to bring comfort and bridge the gap. It not only provides a welcome oasis from our current difficulties, but it also makes possible a sense of connection among us, even through Zoom.
Check out the November issue of LAParentMagazine on page 12 for my article “Escape through Reading”…5 tips for creating a shared reading experience in your family that will provide a powerful buffer through these challenging days.
Book talk on THE INVISIBLE TOOLBOX is up for auction!
“Bid on once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to bring acclaimed and engaging authors on virtual visits to all the places that readers gather in your life!
Look for opportunities for facilitated discussions, readings, workshops, and demonstrations by a remarkable collection of authors to enrich your next book club, family gathering, or loved one’s classroom!”
Words Alive, a San Diego literacy nonprofit, connects children, teens, and families to the power of reading.
In support of their important work promoting literacy, I’m thrilled to offer a book talk on The Invisible Toolbox: The Power of Reading to Your Child from Birth to Adolescence. Find out why reading to your child is one of the greatest gifts a parent can give.
Because my talk will take place over Zoom, anyone can bid via silent auction.
Bid now and throughout the month of October and enrich your book club, classroom, or parenting group with a book talk on The Invisible Toolbox. Learn why reading to your child is one of the greatest gifts a parent can give!
Over 40 authors and their work are represented this year in Words Alive’s annual fundraiser. I have to admit I’m fangeeking out a bit to be in such awesome company. Check them all out at the link below.
Originally printed in L.A. Parent Magazine, September 2020
In this highly digitized climate of remote learning, reading to your child matters now more than ever. Check out my article in the September issue of L.A. Parent to find out why. Follow the link below.
The Single Most Important Thing Parents Can Do to Mitigate Covid Slide
If you’re a parent worried about Covid-19’s long-term effects on not only your child’s academic growth, but their social-emotional well being too, you are not alone. “Covid Slide” is the new buzzphrase for the worry that students who miss out on regular school will have long-term gaps in their learning and struggle to catch up.
It’s an understandable concern. The Distance Learning programs that schools and school districts delivered during the final third of the school year varied widely. Some schools pivoted quickly into a fairly robust program, while others faltered and even petered out toward the end of the year.
Children have been out of physical school since March and, with the number of COVID cases spiking this summer, schools across the country are facing agonizing decisions about how school will take place in the fall.
The uncertainty of it all is bound to cause anxiety in parents. Sending their child back to some semblance of normalcy if their school does open under physically distanced circumstances, participating in their school’s distance learning program, or keeping them home and figuring it out for themselves are possibilities every parent will have to grapple with soon.
In the meantime, what can a parent do to help their child continue to grow academically and feel safe and healthy emotionally?
The single most important thing a parent can do during this time of school upheaval is to support their child’s love of reading. Finding pleasure in reading is so critically fundamental to all learning that fostering it is the best possible insurance a parent can employ in preventing not only academic decline, but also emotional distress.
Two Critical Tools Every Child Needs
In The Invisible Toolbox: The Power of Reading to Your Child from Birth to Adolescence, I explain the tools a parent bestows on their child through reading to them from the beginning that will affect their future school success. Here, I’ll explain just two as these are two of the most critical ones a child needs during this time.
Tool #1: Intellectual Curiosity
The child who reads will want to know more
One of the most important tools that a child who finds pleasure in reading gains is intellectual curiosity. It may sound lofty, but intellectual curiosity is simply the quality of wanting to know more about the world. Young children are innately curious, but I’ve learned through over thirty years in the classroom that this quality is easily lost if it isn’t nurtured. Children who read learn more than those who don’t, and, they are more curious than their non-reading peers.
Why is the cultivation of intellectual curiosity important during this time of interrupted school? A child who reads for pleasure during this time continues to want to know more and will read more in order to learn. They are intrinsically motivated to do this, regardless of whether they are in school or not. These students want to learn for learning’s sake. They are much less likely to fall behind and will be primed to resume regular instruction because they have not stopped learning.
Tool #2: The Ability to Find Joy Anytime, Anywhere
A child who reads for pleasure can find joy through being transported beyond their circumstances
Parents and all who care about children are not only concerned about academic slippage. Earlier this summer, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that schools re-open in the fall, despite spiking cases of COVID-19, for the sake of children’s social-emotional health.
Children need to be with other children, and face-to-face learning with a caring adult is ideal. But what if public health circumstances prevent this from happening in the fall? How then can a parent best support the social-emotional needs of their child?
Encouraging a love of reading is helpful here too. There are two ways a parent can promote their child’s emotional well-being through reading.
A daily family read-aloud time is a comforting oasis for both parent and child during a difficult time. Sharing a picture book or a novel together is an opportunity not only to escape into another world, but also to connect with each other through the experience. Having a parent’s full attention at some point each day has an enormously positive impact on a child’s well-being. Enjoying a story together offers an opportunity for conversations not only about the story, but also about a child’s feelings around it. This may even lead to other conversations that wouldn’t occur without the prompting of the story. A daily family read-aloud time is an excellent opportunity for bonding.
Having books to jump into independently can be a soothing haven for a child during a difficult time as well. Neuroscience has taught us much in recent years about the impact that reading for pleasure has on the brain.
What we now know that we didn’t understand before is that when we read fiction it impacts not just the language-processing portion of the brain, but all parts of the brain. Studies show that when we read, we experience the story as if it’s actually happening to us. (Murphy Paul, 2012.) What this means for a child immersed in a book is that they are truly transported when they read; they experience the story as if they are actually participating in it. Studies also indicate that reading puts our brains into a state similar to meditation and that it brings the same health benefits: deeper relaxation, inner calm, lower stress levels, and lower rates of depression.
Reading provides a healthy escape from the monotony of being stuck at home.
Lest a parent worry that their child could grow into a reading recluse unable to relate to others, studies also show that reading fiction develops a person’s capacity for empathy. Entering into a story necessitates that a reader put themselves into a character’s shoes. With fiction we come to understand that others have viewpoints different from our own. These important ingredients for social-emotional wellness cultivated through reading can make a lasting impact on a child’s ability to understand others. (Mar, 103-134)
Finding pleasure in reading is so critically fundamental to all learning that fostering it is the best possible insurance a parent can employ in preventing not only academic decline, but also emotional distress.
Come fall, whether or not schools reopen, no child will experience school in the way they’ve known it in the past. Regardless of your child’s school circumstances, encouraging their love of reading remains the one of the most important things you can do.
Last spring, as soon as my school announced that we were going into Distance Learning, one of my fifth grade students made a beeline for the school library and checked out 17 books. His ability to think ahead and plan for lost access to the library was impressive. The parents of another student of mine did a very smart thing too. They ordered every single Rick Riordan title from Amazon so that their son would have a complete library of his beloved series to read during the quarantine. By June this boy had read over 19 novels.
As a teacher I felt good about the language arts program I was able to deliver remotely to my students on such short notice. It wasn’t nearly as expansive as what I would have been able to offer in person, but except for a very few, most of my students remained active and engaged until the end of the year. The boys who were reading continually for fun were two I knew I didn’t need to worry about.
Parents can let go of some of their anxiety, too, through supporting their child’s love of reading. While not every parent can afford to buy an entire library of their child’s favorite author’s books, the public library, their child’s school’s library, or free books available online can provide a child with what they need to carry them through this time of disruption and build a strong foundation for their future.
Dickson, Kim Jocelyn. (2020). The Invisible Toolbox: The Power of Reading to Your Child from Birth to Adolescence. Coral Gables, FL/USA: Mango Publishing Group.
Mar, Raymond. (2011). Annual Review of Psychology. Vol. 62: 103-134.
Murphy Paul, Annie. (2012). Your Brain on Fiction. New York Times.