The Secret Power of the Children’s Picture Book
Even infants get profound cognitive and behavioral benefits from sharing a vivid story.
By Meghan Cox Gurdon
Millions of people—perhaps you’re one of them—have watched viral videos of a Scottish granny collapsing in laughter while she reads to a baby. Comfortable on a sofa with her grandson, Janice Clark keeps cracking up as she tries to read “The Wonky Donkey” and, in a second video recorded a few months later, “I Need a New Bum.”
Her raspy burr sounds great, and she’s fun to watch, but the real genius of the scene is what’s happening to the baby. Tucked beside her, he’s totally enthralled by the book in her hands. In the second video especially, because he’s older, you can see his eyes tracking the illustrations, widening in amazement each time that she turns the page. He’s guileless, unaware of the camera. He has eyes only for the pictures in the book.
What’s happening to that baby is both obvious and a secret marvel. A grandmother is weeping with laughter as she reads a story, and her grandson is drinking it all in—that’s obvious. The marvel is hidden inside the child’s developing brain. There, the sound of her voice, the warmth of her nearness and, crucially, the sight of illustrations that stay still and allow him to gaze at will, all have the combined effect of engaging his deep cognitive networks.
Unbeknown to him and invisible to the viewer, there is connection and synchronization among the different domains of his brain: the cerebellum, the coral-shaped place at the base of the skull that’s believed to support skill refinement; the default mode network, which is involved with internally directed processes such as introspection, creativity and self-awareness; the visual imagery network, which involves higher-order visual and memory areas and is the brain’s means of seeing pictures in the mind’s eye; the semantic network, which is how the brain extracts the meaning of language; and the visual perception network, which supports the processing of visual stimuli.
And it is all happening exactly when it needs to happen, which is early. In the first year of life, an infant’s brain doubles in size. By his second birthday, synapses are forming for language and many other higher cognitive functions. And by the time he’s blowing out five candles on his birthday cake, today’s viral-video infant celebrity will have passed through stages of development involving language, emotional control, vision, hearing and habitual ways of responding. The early experiences he’s having, and the wiring and firing of neurons they produce, will help to create the architecture of his mind and lay the pathways for his future thought and imagination.
Leaving one particular Scottish baby aside, it is worth considering what cognitive and behavioral research can tell us about a baby’s gaze and the dynamic power of the picture book. Clinicians at the Cincinnati Children’s Reading and Literacy Discovery Center have been using MRI scanners to study these questions, and they’ve come up with a suitably fairy-tale phrase: The Goldilocks Effect.
For a small 2018 study involving 27 children around the age of 4, the researchers watched how the young brains responded to different stimuli. As with the first bowl of porridge that Goldilocks finds in the house of the Three Bears, the sound of the storytelling voice on its own seemed to be “too cold” to get the children’s brain networks to fully engage. Like the second bowl that Goldilocks samples, animation of the sort that children might see on a TV screen or tablet was “too hot.” There is just too much going on, too quickly, for the children to be able to participate in what they were seeing. Small children’s brains have no difficulty registering bright, fast-moving images, as experience teaches and MRI scanning confirms, but the giddy shock and awe of animation doesn’t give them time to exercise their deeper cognitive faculties.
Babies look at adults to see where we’re looking, so if we’re glued to an electronic device, that’s what will draw their gaze too.
Just as Goldilocks sighs with relief when she takes a spoonful from the third bowl of porridge and finds that it is “just right,” so a small child can relax into the experience of being read a picture book. There is a bit of pleasurable challenge in making sense of what he’s seeing and hearing. There is time to reflect on the story and to see its reverberations in his own life—a transaction that may be as simple as the flash of making a connection between a real donkey he once saw with the “honky tonky, winky wonky donkey” of Craig Smith’s picture book. The collaborative engagement that a child brings to the experience is so vital and productive that reading aloud “stimulates optimal patterns of brain development,” as a 2014 paper from the American Academy of Pediatrics put it, strengthening the neural connections that will enable him to process more difficult and complex stories as he gets older.
Much of the hidden magic of reading aloud has to do with those curious eyes and that devouring gaze. Looking at a book with an adult, a child increases his capacity for “joint attention,” noticing what others see and following their gaze. This phenomenon has a remarkable tempering power in children. It encourages the development of executive function, an array of skills that includes the ability to remember details and to pay attention. Children “learn to naturally regulate their attention when they are focusing on a task, they find interesting in a context that is nurturing, warm and responsive,” as Vanderbilt University’s David Dickenson and colleagues put it in a paper summarizing the rich developmental value of reading aloud.
By contrast, fast-paced TV shows have been shown to impair executive function in young children after as little as nine minutes of viewing. Nor is that the only tech-related downside. Babies look at adults to see where we’re looking, so if we’re glued to our electronic devices, that’s what will draw their gaze too. What they see may not be what we want them to see. As the psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair has written: “Babies are often distressed when they look to their parent for a reassuring connection and discover the parent is distracted or uninterested. Studies show that they are especially perturbed by a mother’s ‘flat’ or emotionless expression, something we might once have associated with a depressive caregiver but which now is eerily similar to the expressionless face we adopt when we stare down to text, stare away as we talk on our phones or stare into a screen as we go online.”
Given that parents and grandparents are going to spend some time using devices, it is all the more important to balance it out with times of intense engagement with babies and toddlers. Glancing down to catch a baby’s eye while reading a story, meeting a child’s inquiring gaze—these simple acts bring the child’s brain waves into greater synchronization with the adult’s, according to recent research at Cambridge University. Babies in the study made more vocalizations when they were in sync, suggestive of an early head-start in language. Reading picture books to them thus has a double effect: It removes the negative of extra screen time while adding a terrific positive in the form of skill- and brain-building effects. It’s a perfect way to ensure that babies and young children get what their eyes so benefit from seeing wonderful pictures in books and the wonderful human face.
You Want to Back Off Your Kids' Activities in A Big Way
By Katie McPherson
Gone are the days of moms telling their kids to play outside until the streetlights come on. But should they be? Aside from giving parents a break, doctors are saying kids reap a lot of developmental benefits from unsupervised playtime.
According to a study by University College London, having unsupervised playtime makes children more social and more active. Harvard Graduate School of Education seconds this in an article saying free play helps kids develop important skills like creative thinking, analyzing patterns, using empathy, regulating their own emotions, and so much more. Doctors say that free play is necessary for a child to develop into a healthy and happy person.
“Play is a child’s work,” says Kathryn Smerling, PhD, LCSW, family therapist in New York City, in an interview with Romper. “Kids need to be able to play without an adult directing the play because that’s the way a child learns. By building a building, it tumbles down, and then rebuilding it, they’re learning to tackle failure and build resilience. It’s how a child learns how to fail, succeed, share, and negotiate.”
Dan Marullo, PhD, pediatric psychologist at Children’s of Alabama tells Romper that play is crucial to every child’s cognitive and social growth, and that the more they play, the better they’ll develop. But he says unsupervised play doesn’t mean children should be left alone or put in unsafe environments. Instead, parents should think of it as “child-led” playtime.
“’Unsupervised’ doesn’t necessarily mean that adults aren’t present, and how much presence adults have should be age-dependent. It can help to think about this in terms of adult-led play versus child-led play. If you think about play as the natural ability of the child to explore their world and interactions, the more play is directed by them, the more they’re learning.”
Too much adult interference can prevent kids from developing their own life skills through playing, like the ability to resolve conflict. “If you watch preschoolers play, they get into little arguments, but if you leave them be, they work it out. If adults interject and direct that, they don’t have the ability to learn those skills on their own. They need the opportunity to get out there, get dirty, and make mistakes, both alone and with their peers,” Marullo says.
Of course, parents aren’t lying in wait to disrupt their child’s development — it’s important to make sure your children are safe, and not all families live in areas with access to safe outdoor environments. To get the benefits of unsupervised play without turning a blind eye, Jennifer Nitz, OTR/L, occupational therapist at Wolfson Children’s Hospital of Jacksonvillein Florida, recommends bringing children together around a creative activity.
“I’ll give you an example I would use with my son. I would probably have a playdate with some of his peers from his class. I’d set them up at the table with stickers, paper, crayons, puzzles, and things like that, and encourage the kids to make a card for their mom or dad, or try to solve the puzzle together," she tells Romper. "Crafts help them to independently make something and be proud of it. It can be as simple as making a card or picture, finger painting, or a craft kit as they get older. The peer-to-peer interaction with making a kit from a box is great because they’re going to read the directions together and try to collaborate about what they’re going to make."
And as children get older, their experiences solving problems during playtime help them solve more complex issues. “As you get older, you’re exposed to more people and more ideas, and you build on those early experiences,” Marullo says. “An 8-year-old playing baseball with their friends negotiating whether the ball was foul or not, those are skills they’re learning about how to interact with people. It’s no different than the 4-year-olds tussling over the same toy, but if you don’t have those experiences when you’re 4, it’s harder to build on when you’re 8, and then 16. That’s why play is so important.”
The World Health Organization says children 1 year of age need at least 30 minutes of physical activity a day, like tummy time or floor play. For children ages 1 through 4, the WHO recommends three hours of playtime to ensure healthy physical development, but what about those social, emotional, and cognitive skills? Nitz says there are some signs a child needs more time to play freely, specifically if their interpersonal skills need improvement.
“We want to make sure that our kids are being social, that they’re building relationships with peers at school, and that they’re developing those skills. If a parent notices something that doesn’t seem normal, that’s a good time to promote those interactions with family, peers, and others in the community,” she says. Nitz suggests sleepovers, playdates, team sports, and community events as opportunities for your child to interact with other kids in an undirected way.
Many children today seem to have pretty busy schedules, but Marullo and Smerling urge parents to make time for play. “It does seem like kids have more and more scheduled activity,” says Marullo. “We see kids getting burnt out and showing physical symptoms that are stress-related. They have school, then band practice, soccer, and on and on. A child does not need to be scheduled every minute of the day, and in fact, they shouldn’t be. Our tendency these days is to want to give our kids all the advantages possible so when they’re 18 they can go to the best colleges. What kids really need is that downtime to play, read, and mess around with art.”
“Children learn by play and depriving them of free play is depriving them of their development,” Smerling says. “There has been a tremendous amount of research over the years that shows play is how they learn best.” So basically? Back off, parents.