Kids, Books, and Dads

by John Hoffman

A friend posted this really cool baby video on Facebook a few weeks ago. It shows her nine-month-old baby, Rueben, “reading” a book.  He’s not really reading, of course. Reuben is leaning on a low table looking at and playing with a baby board book that has pictures of animals. Rueben sort of flips the pages back and forth, looking at the pictures at times, other times looking up at his parents to see if they are paying attention. He is too little to hold the book and turn the pages the way you or I would. But he clearly has the idea of what books are for.

What got my attention most was the way he babbled as he flipped the pages. Rueben can’t say any words yet. But it really seemed like he was trying to not only tell the story, but imitate the sound and voice patterns and rhythms he’s heard when his parents, Myles and Jen, read to him.

The tone of his voice rises and falls similar to the ways adults vary their voice to stress certain words or make the story sound interesting. At one point he makes an” Agh! Agh!” sound, which seemed like an attempt at barking like a dog. But who knows? Sometimes he’d lose interest briefly. He’d just start batting the pages around or trying to turn the book over. Typical behaviour for a kid his age. But then he came back to his “story telling.

To me this video is a textbook example of why it’s good to introduce babies to books.  Babies build pre-literacy skills in all kinds of ways. Some of most important ones, in the first year of life, are more about face-to-face communication than books or words on page. Babies need to hear all the different sounds of their language (or languages) repeatedly. And, as they hear those sounds in their parents’ voices, they gradually learn to connect those sounds with movements their parents’ mouths make as they say them. Making those connections helps babies get read to learn to talk, and eventually to read.

But books play a role as well. And I just know little Rueben was learning something very useful from having fun “playing” with his little book and trying to imitate the way his parents “read” to him. Not every baby will do exactly the kind of story-telling Rueben does. But they still learn a lot when we enjoy books with them. Even in this age where kids see a lot of text on device screens during their preschool years, I still think there is something particularly valuable about interacting with books.

Myles and Jen started reading to Rueben when he was two-months old. At a well-baby visit their family doctor asked if they were reading to Rueben yet. “It never occurred to me to read to a baby that young,” says Jen. But they got some baby books – board books and plastic books – from some friends and their local toy lending library. They started looking at them with Rueben and talking about the pictures, reading the words, and saying the rhymes if there were any.  “It wasn’t the kind of reading stories I had imagined, “ says Myles. “But I can remember the first time I could see him tracking the pictures with his eyes, and looking where I was pointing. I could tell he was interested. That was pretty cool.”

Key point there. Rueben was interested. Looking at books was something he enjoyed. That is as important as anything else here. Because, at a very early age, Rueben already sees books as something good – a fun part of his life and play.

When I visited this family Reuben was on Myles’ lab at the kitchen table much of the time. And, like most babies, he was reaching for whatever he could get his hands on, spoons, cups or whatever. Every once in awhile Myles would wiggle his finger up and down on Rueben’s lips. And, as if on cue, Rueben would start to go “Ahh….”, resulting in that funny bubba, bubba sound that babies (and parents) get such a bang out of. Another fun way to experience making sounds.

At one point Jen brought a couple of board books over – little wee ones, not much bigger than the palm of your hand. Rueben’s eyes lit up and he went for them. He looked at me with wide eyes, as if to say, “Look what I’ve got!”  He didn’t try to tell me the story, but he sure had fun with those books. “In some ways books are sort of like one of Reuben’s toys,” says Myles.

I can see that. But however you look at the books, I’m sure Reuben’s got a lot of enjoyment of books to look forward to in his early years and beyond.

And, in terms of building literacy, books give him another way – a really good way – to experience sounds and to connect them to what he sees. That’s a great basis for reading.

So, I urge all fathers to get into books with their babies. I do not subscribe to the “read to babies from Day 1” mantra. But exploring books with babies is fun. It can also be a nice quiet way to connect and pass the time of day together. Even if reading is not one of your strong points, you can still point to the pictures and talk about them, or make up your own stories. I don’t see any need to try to make it a “learning” activity. The learning will happen on it’s own.

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