Children and books are an unbeatable combination. Stimulated minds can lead to imaginative fantasy play that cannot be duplicated by either the physical pursuits presented by sports, or pastimes involving technology, which are of great importance to the overall development of young people and should not be downplayed in the current debate. However books allow children to take an idea and create from it a world of characters, situations, and outcomes that are endless, and by no means encumbered by the text that sets the journey in motion. So is reading to children important? Does it matter what we read to children? Isn’t any reading better than no reading at all?
Yes, yes and no! Reading aloud to children provides a wealth of experiences for the child and - dare I suggest - the reader. In the case of younger children, particularly, it allows them to be transported to the land of boundless imagination. With an enthusiastic older reader giving their time and literacy skills, and without the constraints of a limited knowledge of written language, children can relax and enjoy the text without thinking of the structure of the words or the sentences. For older children who don’t have these challenges to reading, it is a time of pure indulgence - total immersion in the moment and in the attention of the mentor who is reading to them. The possibilities that flow from spending one-on-one time with a child of any age on a regular basis are limitless.
As for what is being read, the importance of the content could be best summed up in the words “seize the moment!” Why read to children something that they will probably be willing and motivated to read for themselves. Narnia may not look as trendy on the bookshelf as Harry Potter (which I read to my 10-year-old) or the endless supply of material revolving around exploding “psycho bums” and revolting tales (which I do not read to my ten-year-old, but neither do I object to him having a giggle over it in his own reading time).The Lion the Witch and The Wardrobe has a magical effect on the listener and the reader that is timeless.
There are also many superb contemporary Australian books by literary authors that not only satisfy the imaginations of small children but also applaud their intelligence by presenting stories that are thoughtful and beautifully constructed. Look for anything by Gary Crew, for example, (who has won a myriad of literary awards for children’s writing and has not been out of print for nearly 20 years) and you will find that almost any issue will be available to you in a sensitive story format. They may not be marketed to the masses with the great gusto that “psycho bums” are, but you will find them in libraries all over the world because people who work with books recognise the difference between a book made to gain a quick dollar and a book written to enrich a young mind. Children have ample opportunities to pick up the quick-read-nonsense books on their own if they are interested. Every Australian school I know of has a library, so if a parent or carer chooses to set aside reading time then why not make the most of it and choose a book that introduces a child to something other than that which they already know through the media. Enrich their little minds with the world of literature by choosing books that add to the child’s world in meaningful ways.
That personal time spent with a child at the end of a fast-paced 21st century day is a gift that money cannot buy - a time to explore imaginations and cultivate a relationship between a child and his parent/carer that may be instrumental in keeping a door open during the transition stages to adulthood and beyond. A chance to whet his appetite for knowledge and a window of opportunity for a conversation that might not otherwise take place. And that’s just the benefits to the adult!
Good on Mark Latham for putting reading to children on the table. Let’s hope the parents of our future adults take up the challenge to give some thought to the subject.
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