Brains for Literacy!

  1. Halloween is coming.
  2. Zombies are popular.
  3. Let’s talk about brains!

This is a very exciting time to be alive. For thousands of years what went on inside a persons’ head was a mystery. And over the last hundred or so years there have been a number of breakthroughs that gave us a better and better idea of what the brain we carry around in our heads is actually doing.

The history of brain research is full of gruesome accidents, war wounds, dead bodies, and brain surgery. But even though Halloween is coming, I’m going to skip that part and get straight to the point: the advancements made in the last ten years have given us an increasingly sophisticated picture of how brains grow and develop in the very early stages.

So, why exactly is that exciting?

  1. It helps explain why so many of the traditional activities we have done with children for generations are so effective: person-to-person interaction is one of the most effective ways of forming connections in the brain.
  2. It shows us how stress can derail healthy development and compromise healthy brain functioning.
  3. It gives us very good reasons to hold off on expensive programs and products that promise to make babies into geniuses, because babies clearly don’t need any of those things.
  4. Seriously, there a lumpy organ behind your eyes that makes everything you think, feel and do possible with a system of squirts and splashes. That’s pretty close to miraculous in my mind.

I could go on and on, but there is a new video from the folks at the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative and Norlien Foundation that paints the picture of why this is helpful quite nicely in less than 5 minutes:

How Brains are Built: The Core Story of Brain Development

And if that video whets your appetite for more brains, Dr. Bruce Perry and his organization, the Child Trauma Academy have made a 13 minute video introduction to the brain. If you’re interested in how the brain works, this is an excellent place to start. You might have to watch this a few times, there’s a lot going on in that dark place between your ears:

Seven Slide Series: The Human Brain

So, if you ever catch a glimpse of a family literacy program, remember that while we spend a lot of time crawling on the floor with babies, and squashing play dough with pre-schoolers, we are hard at work building healthy brains!

 

Everyday Scavenger Hunts

I’m sure there are many sticklers who would argue that what I’m suggesting here is not a real scavenger hunt, but let’s skip past the dictionary definitions and focus on how you can incorporate the fun of a scavenger hunt into everyday activities.

You can search for anything

You could make a list of specific things to find, or try to see how many things you can find that fit a certain category. Personally, I’m a fan of categories and descriptions because they are great for developing vocabulary and they require a lot less preparation. Here are a few examples:

  • colours
  • sounds
  • shapes
  • words or letters (or things that start with a letter or sound)
  • movements (things that roll, fly, bounce, walk, slide, never move…)
  • sizes (what things are huge? what can you find with a magnifying glass?)
  • textures
  • groups of things (things found in pairs, 3s, 4s, 5s…)
  • things that fit a theme (tools, animals, plants, wet things, things that rhyme…)

 

You can search anywhere

Really, anywhere:

  • outside (what do you notice: walking down the street, on the bus, in the park, around a pond, at the zoo…)
  • at home (in a particular room or searching the whole house)
  • in other buildings (the garage, the grocery store, a greenhouse, the library, the post office…)
  • in books, magazines, and newspapers (newspapers are great for finding words and letters, and you might be amazed how many things they can remember seeing in the books you have shared together)
  • in your imagination (very handy when you run out of things to spot on long car rides)
  • in the garbage (maybe you’re learning about recycling or composting?)

 

You don’t need a “list”

While traditionally you start by handing out copies of a written list, a lot of young children will not find that very helpful. More often you will be reading the list to them. You can also use pictures with or instead of words, but that takes time, so you are probably only going to do that for special occasions or with things you use all the time (like turning your grocery list into a scavenger hunt).

Some people like checking things off in a list, but I never understood the appeal myself. Instead, if you want to keep track of what you find in your search, you could draw together, take pictures, use the voice recorder on your phone, collect the items themselves in a bag/box/backpack/basket (half the fun is remembering where the things you collected came from), or scribe for them (they will love seeing their words in print).

Or, you can skip the list altogether. Just pick a category or theme and go exploring together to see what you can find, or take turns deciding what you’re going to look for next.

 

Consider your audience

It’s easy to be overwhelmed if you think that a scavenger hunt needs to play out like the script to a blockbuster movie or an episode of a reality TV show. I’m not saying that wouldn’t add to the appeal, but young children are natural explorers. They will notice all kinds of things that you never thought to look for, and they bring a level of excitement to “let’s go find things that are red” that you rarely get from us older folk and our teenage friends.

 

Why are we doing this again?

  • It’s fun!
  • You can encourage them to be more observant and methodical. Often children forget to look everywhere or take a running approach to everything. By looking for things together, you can teach them some helpful strategies, like how to slow down or form a plan before you start looking.
  • We are building vocabulary! If your little one is starting to read, then circling all the words they recognize by sight on a newspaper page is great practice.
  • As exciting as it can be, this can also be really relaxing. How often do you take the time to look for shapes in the clouds? Or really listen to all the sounds in your neighbourhood?
  • There are all kinds of categories, themes, and ideas that you explore with these kinds of activities, so you’re helping them develop a broader, deeper, and more coherent worldview.
  • If you are missing a few things (your keys for example) this can be a sneaky way to recruit some help. I’m kidding, but not really. If you approach everyday tasks in a playful manner, you can keep the kids engaged, help them learn, still get everything you need done, and have fun doing it.

Books You Can Play

Let’s say that you’re walking through the woods on your way to school. All of a sudden your lunch box is yanked out of your hand, and you spin around to see a wolf running away with your lunch in one direction and a friendly looking bear with a picnic basket in the other direction. You hate to skip lunch, so you’ll have to choose: will you chase after the wolf, or will you stroll over to see what that bear is up to?

It’s one thing to read about a character making a decision, but when you get to choose which path the story takes you have a lot more invested in finding out what happens next. It’s a simple idea, and some might even dismiss it as a gimmick, but it‘s a powerful motivator. I read every book like this that I could get my hands on in elementary school. I also loved puzzle books (they usually had more visual problems to solve), and books that posed mysteries for me to solve based on the clues in the text.

I would bet that many teachers have passed these sorts of books to the more reluctant readers in their classes over the years, but I think they have a lot to offer for even them most avid reader. For example, they are great for:

  • Introducing a genre of story: mystery, romance, adventure, fantasy, horror, and science fiction are all represented
  • Practicing important skills: problem solving, math, logic, and reading comprehension
  • Bonding: read them together for fun, they are a kind of game after all.

I could go on and on about the “Choose Your Own Adventure” and “Two-minute Mysteries” that I read as a child, and these books are still out there. Some are even in electronic form, and I recently discovered that there are many written for adolescent and even adult audiences.  Some of them even offer an experience closer to playing a board game than the “turn-to-page…” adventure stories that I remember. There are even tools to help people write and create their own game books online. So, if you do want to play with your stories, there are lots of options out there for you to choose from.

         

Reading a Place

I have always found it interesting how often I am asked for directions. Maybe I look like someone who knows where they are going, or maybe I look especially non-threatening, but whatever the case I find myself pointing down the road, explaining the turns to take, and describing the buildings they will see on the way.

It goes without saying that children need to learn how to get from one place to another, and one way you can do that is by drawing a map with them and following it together. This can be a wonderful way to introduce them to their community or learn what is important to them in your neighbourhood.  All the while you will be practicing a wide range of skills, including:

  • recognizing environmental print (like street signs)
  • drawing or describing what we see (size, shapes, colours, symbols)
  • measuring or describing distances
  • imagining how other people see the world (we notice different things)
  • imagining a different visual perspective (maps often take a bird’s eye view)
  • following directions in order (start with a few steps, they will be able to handle more and more with practice as they get older)
  • reading and writing (directions or labels on a map)
  • listening (to directions, or you could even include sounds in your map)

I find it fascinating how many different ways you can explain how to get from one place to another, and how much someone’s directions can tell you about how they see the world.  Consider how much of the world an 8-year old can explore on their own and how that has changed since you were that age, or when your grandparents were that age. There is an interesting article that explores that here: The Great Indoors, or Childhood’s End?

If you cringed or laughed when I mentioned describing buildings to people who are lost, you might enjoy this: The Irrelevant Show: Stuart McLean Gives Directions

Reading Books Without Words

When you think about reading with a child, chances are you imagine reading the words on the page out loud while the child looks at the pictures. But what would you do if there were no words in the book to read?

A good picture book will tell most, if not all, of the story through the photos or illustrations.  By describing the things that you see in the pictures, you can bring the story to life. You may not think you are a better storyteller than the author or illustrator, but you know your child better than anyone, so you can add another level to the book that will appeal more to your child.

Try giving the characters the same names as family members and friends, and relate the story to your child’s own experiences. Take turns telling the story to each other, or have your child play the part of the main character and explain what they are doing, or guess what they would be thinking or saying.

If your child doesn’t feel like telling a story, maybe they would rather talk about the pictures. You might be surprised by what they notice and what draws their attention. I had a great time playing I-spy games with my niece; she loved having me guess which tiny obscure item on a page she was thinking of. So, even without a story, there are lots of opportunities to explore all kinds of ideas and language.

Speaking of language, this is a perfect way to share a book that is written in a language that you can’t read.  It’s also great for times when the book is much wordier than you or your child’s patience will tolerate, or even if you just don’t like how it’s written. Don’t be afraid to ignore the words on the page and tell your own story, in your own words.

So please, go and find yourself a nice picture book to read, and tell me how you liked it. I will even give you a short list of wordless books to try, in case you don’t know where to start:

  • Deep in the Forest by Brinton Turkle
  • The Chicken Thief by Béatrice Rodriguez
  • Chalk by Bill Thomson

Let me know how you and your children like them.  Or how it went over in your book club. Don’t let the word count fool you; good picture books have something for everyone.

 

Baby’s Favourite Book

(0 – 6 months)

Did you know your baby can have a favourite book? Long before they can talk or read, and even before they can turn the pages, babies will show a preference for certain books. And what they like best might surprise you.

We like all different kinds of books as adults: they might put us inside an adventure or romance, they might help us put our lawnmower back together, or maybe they help us feel a part of something bigger than ourselves. Young babies, on the other hand, they like pictures of faces.

Yep, almost as much as they like staring up into your eyes, a book with nice big photos (not drawings) of faces will hold a baby’s attention for sometimes minutes at a time. Baby can’t see very far away, so hold the book roughly 12 inches away from them while you are cuddling or playing on the floor.

The book won’t do all of the work for you. These books typically have little to nothing to read in them, and what’s written is not very exciting. So, instead of reading to your baby, play with the book and your baby, talk about the pictures, and have some goofy fun. Watch and listen for your baby’s reaction, she will tell you what she likes, and when she’s had enough.

One of my favourite books of this type is What’s On My Head!by Margaret Miller. The photos are clear and not too busy. It’s a good size for when babies begin holding things. And, it’s silly:

·      Does the baby like her hat?

·      Who wrapped this little girl up like a present?

·      Why is there a duck on that baby’s head?

This book raises a lot of questions and doesn’t offer many answers. Still, it is fun to explore with your baby for at least as long as his little attention span holds out.