Photo: A baby developing early literacy skills at the CLiF table at Burlington Parks & Rec’s annual Kids Day, May 2017
Yesterday, I got to spend my morning surrounded by adorable babies singing songs, flipping through board books, and playing along with their parents at Fletcher Free Library in Burlington, VT’s weekly baby time. Talk about a great way to turn around a rainy day.
Regulars greeted each other and welcomed newcomers. Some babies arrived napping and joined the fun when they woke with shocking ease. In fact, there was surprisingly little fussiness or tears during baby time. The young ‘uns were (mostly) attentive and interested in the collective sounds, sights, and movements happening around them. That included songs that pointed out parts of the body and encouraged movement and play (and, in one case, “All the Little Babies” to the tune of Beyonce’s “All the Single Ladies,” which I could not get out of my head for the rest of the day). Activities were pretty short to keep their wandering attentions and it was totally fine if a straggler decided to crawl out of the circle or, as one child kept adorably doing, crawl over to a new friend and give them a kiss. Fletcher Free Library Youth Assistant Librarian Megan Butterfield (which, let’s be honest, it about the best last name any youth librarian can have) led storytime, during which the babies were each given their own board books to hold, pair the images with the words they were hearing, and flip the pages – in whatever direction and pace they wanted. Towards the end, the babies were given toys and free reign to play while their adult companions chatted. The parents I spoke to were grateful for the opportunity to connect with other parents and infants and have a supportive space to engage with their children and help encourage brain and motor skills development with free resources like board books and toys to make the stories come to life.
Since I do not have a baby, you might be wondering what I was doing there. Vince Franke from Peregrine Productions and I were there to film babies interacting with books and learning through words and songs for videos the Children’s Literacy Foundation (CLiF) is developing, with generous support from Mark and Ann Beams, for caregivers and parents to learn about the importance of and strategies for developing early literacy skills in children ages 0-5. These videos-in-progress will emphasize ways you can help young children develop early literacy skills such as vocabulary, communications skills, and making connections between words and pictures long before they can read themselves. We hope to share the challenges, successes, and wisdom of parents and educators about ways to engage young children through literacy, which means not just reading books, but talking frequently to your baby, pointing out objects, colors and shapes, singing songs and other interactive activities that help you bond with your baby while he or she builds strong language skills. (You’ll hear more about these videos in the coming months, I promise.)
So why were at the library? “Baby time” is one of several free opportunities for kids and their families to connect with stories and other families offered by the Fletcher Free Library, including music sessions, yoga for kids, Spanish sessions, storytime, and so much more – check their youth calendar here. (Speaking of free opportunities for young kids to connect with stories at the library, CLiF’s Year of the Book grant awarded to Burlington’s Sustainability Academy at Lawrence Barnes School brings new books to Fletcher Free Library, along with a storytime session with popular author/illustrator Jason Chin for kids ages 0-5 on Thursday, November 30 – exact time TBD. You can check CLiF’s calendar or the Fletcher Free youth calendar for details.)
And it’s not just Fletcher Free; Most public libraries offer programming for youth and families to engage with words, songs, books, and each other even before kids are ready to read (check your local library’s calendar or website). Which is exactly why CLiF has undertaken this video project – to highlight how critical it is for kids to develop early literacy skills long before they can read the words on a page.
When asked when families should begin reading to their children, Fletcher Free’s Megan Butterfield said (paraphrased) as soon as possible! As soon as they get home from the hospital. But if you haven’t started yet, right now is the perfect time! Experts agree, it’s never too early to begin reading to your kids (check out Parent Magazine’s Age-by-age guide to reading to your baby; Scholastic also has these tips on Raising a Reader (ages 0-2); And The Spruce has some great suggestions of books to read to your baby even before s/he is born!).
It’s important to remember that reading a book isn’t the only way to encourage early literacy skills; Talking to your kids, pointing out signs and objects, singing songs, telling stories with toys and characters, all help develop their vocabulary, comprehension, and communications skills, so that once the words start to become familiar on a page, they already have the building blocks they need to be strong readers.
The parents we spoke to at the library all talked about how they read – and talk, and sing – frequently to their kids at home, but that it’s important for them and their kids to also take advantage of opportunities like baby time at the library to interact with others, be exposed to different activities, stories, and people, learn from experts like Megan different strategies, games, songs, and activities to engage their kids and stimulate their brains and bodies, and to build a like-minded community for their families. All these reasons are exactly why CLiF brings our talented storytellers to just about everywhere young kids and families can be found in New Hampshire and Vermont – from childcare centers to homeless shelters, after school programs to prison visiting rooms – to expose young kids and their families to words and stories, and instill in them a love of reading and writing.
Thank you to Megan and everyone at Fletcher Free Library, especially the families and babies that let us join in on baby time! You are an inspiration, and made a rainy day a bit brighter.
Erika Nichols-Frazer is a writer and the Communications Manager at the Children’s Literacy Foundation (CLiF), as well as an MFA student in Fiction at Bennington’s Writing Seminars. When not reading, writing, enjoying the outdoors, or playing with babies, she can be found at her home in Waitsfield with her husband, dogs, and chickens. You can follow her on Twitter at @enicfraze or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.