Category Archives: reading to children

Brain candy

At a recent fifth birthday party, I told Benjamin that he would not be having a piece of candy as a chaser to the giant globs of icing he had just licked off his slice of cake, which were themselves a follow-up to the ice cream he had eaten with his lunch.  Our host, a good friend and a mother of three kids of similar ages to my own, laughed and turned to her mother.  “Oh, God, candy is my savior.  ‘You want some more candy?  Here, take some more candy.’”  She shrugged self-deprecatingly.  “Candy is my babysitter.”

We know each other too well to judge on another at this point and mostly lament our own parenting foibles.  “Of course you need to use candy as a babysitter,” I smiled.  “Your kids don’t watch TV.”

“That’s true.  I’m beginning to think I made the wrong choice.”

I had to concur.  “A TV show lasts a lot longer than a piece of candy.”

In this analogy, then, candy and television are both acknowledged junk, but we indulge our kids because we can only hover over them and prevent their access for so long.  Candy rots the teeth and we all know television rots the brain.

Or does it?

On Monday, I had the privilege of attending a lunch discussion at our local PBS station, one that was conveniently scheduled so I could leave immediately after Lilah’s mid-morning feeding and arrive home ten minutes before her afternoon one.   The nice thing about this event, unlike other things bloggers get invited to, was that it was not about getting me to sell a product but rather about actually discussing how best to help children.

It was a small group of parent bloggers (OK, mothers) and a panel of three women who design children’s programming for PBS.  Joyce Campbell, the VP of Education and Children’s Programming and producer of Sid, the Science Kid, didn’t do a whole lot of talking, as she was clearly there just to hear what we had to say.  The other two women on the panel, however, had some fascinating things to say.

One was Lesli Rotenberg, the Senior VP of Children’s Media and the other was Angela Santomero, the creator and  executive producer of Super Why, which makes her a freakin’ hero in my book.   Super Why is my kids’ new favorite show, and it is the first program they have really loved that I have felt the same way about.  Not that I watch with them, because that would defeat the whole purpose of scheduling TV time right before dinner…  But, I have watched an episode or two, and this show rocks the house.  It is a television show designed to – wait for it – promote reading.  Yes, reading.

Now, here’s a little fun fact about me.  I don’t really watch TV.  I used to watch a little each day, but about a year ago, I realized I was going to have to choose between reading and television, and I decided to stop watching in order to get some reading time.  I went about three months never turning the thing on, but then the presidential conventions turned me into a short-term couch potato.  Nonetheless, my heavy-television weeks involve watching two shows (over the course of the week) and my light ones involve no TV at all.  Come to think of it, other than an episode of Super Why, I haven’t watched TV in at least three weeks, and we never have the TV on during the day.

Yet, I am not against TV.  I am just pro-reading.  So, you can imagine my delight that there is a television program all about these four little kids who, when faced with a problem, go diving into books together to find a solution.

Rock the house.

The subject matter is good, as are the reading skills they teach.  This show happens to be designed to cover Benjamin – who at almost three years old still cannot identify any letter other than “O” and the occasional “S” – and Zachary – who at almost five is sounding out phonics and has probably fifty sight words.  See, there is this pig who is in charge of letters, two girls who are all about reading words, and then a boy who pulls it all together.

OK, you get it – good show, educational, blah, blah, blah.  This is not a review blog and you would probably have stopped reading this post already if you weren’t hoping there would eventually be a point to the whole thing.  There is.

See, apparently, the people over at PBS Kids did not go into their line of work for the fabulous remuneration of public television.  They actually, um, care about providing quality, educational programming to children.  Especially lower-income children.  You know, the kids who may not have Tivo, Cable, and 473 kids’ books.  (I haven’t actually counted, so we may have more.  Those paperbacks are deceptive.)  The kids whose parents may not have the luxury of time to sit down and read with their children every day.  The kids who don’t attend preschools that cost (cough, cough) a year.  They want to reach those children and help them learn to read, love reading, and read well.

Perforce, the folks at PBS Kids have designed a Super Why camp for underprivileged kids, utilizing established camps but bringing in their own curriculum for a week.  They administer a simple “pretest,” and then they use one episode of the show and build five days of reading skills activities around the episode, with each day focusing on the “power” of one of the characters.  At the end of the program, they administered a “post-test”, and saw an 18% increase in letter sounds skills, a 29% increase in reading words, an 84% increase in encoding skills, and a whopping 139% increase in word decoding.

Praise the lord and pass the television.  The fact is, not everyone can afford childcare help.  Some people are working two and three jobs, if they can get them, just to get by.  And, in those families, TV is going to be a cheap alternative to having Super Nanny living in the guest wing.  Those are the kids who most need someone who can spare the time to teach them reading skills.  This show tries to fill the gap.  Is it as good as a parent sitting down for an hour working on reading every afternoon?  No, of course not.  But, that cannot always happen.  And even when it does, there is no earthly reason that media like television can’t be seen as a part of multifaceted approach to getting kids excited about reading.

It turns out there is a do-it-yourself version of this camp.  We were all given a nifty little backpack with activities to do with our kids.  Now, I’ve already screwed up because, although I did the pretest, there was no time to do the next day’s activities and of course the kids wanted to watch the same episode again the next night, in part because Zach was afraid of a different episode called “Thumbelina” for fear the mole might make an appearance.

I am going to be doing all these cool little activities with the kids, similar to some of what the trained professionals do at the camp, although I must say this flies in the face of my “television as a babysitter” technique.  I’ll report back on my family experiment and let you know how it goes, and the good people of PBS Kids will be checking our blogs for feedback.  You can get in on the action, too, because there is a huge trove of activities on the PBS Kids website that can help you use the show to augment your kids’ learning.  They’ll be reading comments and would be happy to hear what people have to say.

Well, slap my thigh and call me “Matilda.”  Who knew television might just have more in common with carrots than with candy?

Better than a cuddle

            The problem with reading to your children is twofold.  One, it encourages verbal development.  I see some folly in encouraging any more language development in my kids, at least until they start talking to one another instead of to me.

            Two, they come to like books.  A lot.

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            They are not supposed to be out of bed before 7:00, and Zachary has a digital clock by his bed to ensure compliance.  If they need to pee, they are to leave silently so as not to wake one another, but neither child actually gets up to pee.

            Lately, we have been bending the rule.  It seems to be now that, if we are approaching 7:00 and you get out of bed without disturbing the other child, you get to climb into the big bed.  On the weekends, there is still a parent or two in the bed to snuggle with.  On weekdays, I have been known to climb back into bed to share an early morning cuddle.

            Unfortunately, Zachary is a smart little bugger, and this policy seems to be encouraging him to get up earlier just so he can get some quiet cuddle time.  We’re going to need to revert to the earlier standard, if only because pretty soon there is going to be a baby demanding that 6:30-7:00 slot. 

            But not quite yet.  And so it was that on one recent morning, the little man and I sat together quietly on the living room couch, a rare moment when he allowed me to embrace him.  After a few minutes, he whispered to me, “Mommy.  I have an idea.  We could do something better than a cuddle.”

            I knew what was coming.  “What’s that Zach?”

            “It’s something next to the couch.”

            “You want a book, babe.”  I couldn’t help but smile, even though it also made me a little sad to know that already, at barely four, he classifies that as superior to hugging me.  “Go ahead and pick one.”

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            Usually, we join the library immediately upon moving somewhere.  But, this move has been so protracted and so overwhelming that we hadn’t gotten around to it.  Maybe the lousy libraries in our London neighborhood had spoiled our interest.  Or maybe we were just overwhelmed.

            Our nanny, however, is subversive.  First, she started talking about the library with our kids.  She planted the seed, encouraging Zachary to subtly request a library card.  Then, she started bringing over library books she had checked out.  Finally, she quietly left two applications for library cards on the kitchen counter.  No comment – just the applications.

            I got the damned cards.  The library is walking distance, and she takes them there all the time, returning one set of books and checking out another.

            She’s encouraging the habit, you know.

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            He sat on my lap while our nanny gave Zachary snack, on the same couch where I had read to his brother in the morning.  “Want book,” he declared.

            “Go pick one.”  He thumped down to the floor, ran over, grabbed The Lady With the Alligator Purse.  I sang it to him.

            “Want ‘nother book, Mommy.”  This time it was Sandra Boynton.  We finished it.

            “’Nother one.”  I despise those books with the full dinosaur names that I cannot pronounce.

            “ Want ’nother one, please.”  A book of British nursery rhymes, which always shock me in their excessive violence, what with carving knives and mice tails and whatnot.

            “Want ‘nother book.”

            “’Nother book.”

            “ Want ‘nother one, Mommy.”

            At least this child lets me hold him while we read.