Wednesday 20 September 2017

Benefits of booking time in with your kids

Page turner: Eimear McHugh (8) pictured with her brother Cormac (6) reading at the launch of the Story for their Stocking campaign. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Page turner: Eimear McHugh (8) pictured with her brother Cormac (6) reading at the launch of the Story for their Stocking campaign. Photo: Frank Mc Grath

Chrissie Russell

Has your child mailed off their letter to Santy yet? What made the list? Hatchimals? GoPro camera? Remote control BB8? In today's technologically-advanced toy market, there are 101 all-singing, all-dancing 'must haves' that doubtless topped the wish lists of thousands of Irish children this Christmas - but what about good old fashioned books?

Well, even if the kids haven't asked for it, a new campaign by the Arts Council just might sway Santy into slipping some stories into his sleigh.

New research shows that, on average, Irish parents spend two hours of uninterrupted time with their children each day. In fact, more than half of parents have even less than this, notching up just 90 minutes. So it's perhaps not surprising the average amount of time a parent spends reading to their child is just 14 minutes per day. More than half of parents want to spend more time reading with their children and when you see the research on the benefits, it's easy to see why. Reading aloud has links to children developing better vocabulary and mastery of language, better communication skills and more logical thinking.

Last year, a brain-scan study in the States revealed that reading to a child early and often activated the part of their brain involved in semantic processing, extracting meaning from language and helping them "see" the story. Then, of course, there are the emotional benefits - building empathy, unlocking exciting new worlds, helping creativity and so on. To get more families involved with the wealth of benefits associated with reading, the Arts Council has launched their 'Story For Their Stocking' campaign. Backed by a string of high profile book-loving celebs, including Roddy Doyle and Sean Moncrieff, the aim is to get kids and parents into books this Christmas.

"In many ways, reading with one's children is about connecting with them, stripping back to a simple story that is about unlocking the imagination," explains Orlaith McBride, Director of the Arts Council. "As well as all the research-based evidence that your child will benefit intellectually and developmentally, we can never underestimate how much children value these moments of closeness and interaction."

TV isn't without its benefits - after all, evidence shows it too can boost children's vocabulary, but whilst Orlaith agrees there's a time and place for books and TV, parents need to realise when they might be prioritising the easier, rather than the best, option.

"Tech-nology is wonderful and should be embraced, but often children are given technology to replace valuable time that can be spent with our children in such a busy world," says Orlaith. "Parents are so time poor that it's easier to use the TV than to take time to read, as that time could be spent catching up on housekeeping, etc, after a busy day in the office."

"By contrast, reading develops empathy, language skills, understanding of different context," adds Orlaith. "It unlocks imaginative worlds and allows children to visualise rather than being given the visual in a passive form, which is what TV does. It's proven to improve academic achievement and intellectual capacity, which ultimately will allow the child to develop as a more rounded individual. This isn't to say TV is bad - both are beneficial. It's about balance, time for both."

Mum-of-three, Maria McGrath, a civil servant from Tipperary, has always tried to make reading part of her kids' routine. Starting when they were babies, books were part of their bed-time routine, a post-feed wind-down time. Now that Senan (3), Cormac (6) and Eimear, who turns nine next month, are older, Maria and her husband Mike still like to have books at bedtime.

"I like the closeness it gives us," says Maria. "After I stopped feeding them, it was nice to focus on stories and cuddles at that time of the night. My lot are very active, but reading is a great calming thing before bed. But any time, day or night, it's one of the few things that will calm them down if they're getting a bit hyper."

With the older children, paired reading (where the child reads part of the story) has helped them become more confident in language.

"Without a doubt, it's improved their attention and focus," adds Maria. "From improved vocabulary and speech development, we've definitely seen the benefits."

Screenwriter Stefanie Preissner, who is involved in the Arts Council's campaign, remembers being read to as a youngster.

"I remember 'The Sky is Falling Chicken Licken, Henny Penny, Cocky Locky, Ducky Lucky, Goosey Loosey' - because I knew the order so well, I always knew if mum was leaving pages out!" she laughs. The Can't Cope, Won't Cope creator is currently working on a film adaptation of a novel which she says has whet her appetite to get back into reading more frequently.

"I'll definitely be hoping that Santy brings me a good book this Christmas."

Proving you're never too old, or too young, to get a story in your stocking.

Family favourites

Heather Humphreys:

Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs

The Children Of Lir by Ann Carroll, €4.99

"When my daughters were small, I used to enjoy reading them stories of Irish mythology, like The Children Of Lir. These stories captured their attention and gave them an appreciation for Irish folklore."

Sarah Carey: Broadcaster and journalist

Iggy Peck, Architect by David Robertson, €14.70

"From age two, Iggy displays a gift for architecture. Building towers from nappies and castles from chalk, he finally meets his match in a mean, but psychologically damaged teacher, Miss Lila Greer. Fear not, Iggy triumphs, magnificently."

PJ Lynch: Illustrator and current Laureate na nÓg

Owl Bat Bat Owl by Marie- Louise Fitzpatrick, €15.99

"One of my favourite picture books this year, it is a lovely wordless story that celebrates tolerance, friendship and co-operation between these unlikely neighbours."

Ciara Doherty: Ireland AM presenter

Matilda by Roald Dahl, €9.80

"Do children a massive favour - introduce them to Roald Dahl. I spent hours mesmerised by the man who understood what it was to be a child. Whether it's Matilda or Witches, he could be dark, horrid, mischievous and funny all in one sentence - utter magic."

Irish Independent

Editors Choice

Also in Life