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Jenn Ackerman, For the Deseret News
Angela Whited, events manager and storyteller, reads and entertains during story time at Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul, Minn., on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2016. The bookstore hosts story time twice a week.

The courtyard outside Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul, Minnesota, is packed with strollers Wednesday mornings as dozens of moms, grandmothers, nannies and children file into the children’s bookstore.

It’s standing-room only for the main event — storytime, and bookseller Lily Tschudi-Campbell is playing to a captive audience as she pulls out the first selection, “Yellow Time,” a picture book by Lauren Stringer.

Angela Whited, events manager and storyteller, reads and entertains during story time at Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul, Minn., on Oct. 6, 2016. | Jenn Ackerman, for the Deseret News

It looks like fun, but Tschudi-Campbell and Red Balloon events manager Angela Whited know they’re offering a lot more than entertainment.

“Whatever kids are doing, they’re learning,” Whited said. “They’re little sponges.”

According to the American Association of Pediatrics, what kids are learning are crucial early literacy and language skills — the building blocks of development. These skills are so important the AAP officially recommended reading to children from birth and said that doing so is as important as breast-feeding and getting vaccinations to ensure children get the best start in life.

Being read to has been linked to all sorts of benefits for kids, including brain development tied to mental imagery, which some researchers think contributes to reading comprehension.

Yet, while reading is such a seemingly simple and essential part of child development, not all children are read to early or often, putting them at a developmental and intellectual disadvantage.

“We know that even in advantaged families, where the income level is above the poverty line, 60 percent read to their children every day,” said Dr. Pamela High, a Rhode Island-based pediatrician who wrote the AAP’s recommendation. “It’s an essential component of a child’s development, but it’s still not a universal practice.”

“An infant’s brain is developing very rapidly at a rate it never will again,” said Nikki Shearman, director of communications for literacy nonprofit group Reach Out and Read. “The first three years of life are a critical window where if the brain is not stimulated, those connections will be lost.”

Aside from building necessary language and learning skills, storytime has other hidden benefits as science and literacy experts are just beginning to understand, namely, how reading helps children develop beyond mere language and how it can strengthen families.

Sangeun Yoon and Faith Hayeon Song, 3, read a book after story time at Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul, Minn., on Oct. 6, 2016. | Jenn Ackerman, for the Deseret News

“The real power of this is that it’s an intervention that occurs in the parent’s lap,” High said. “It can be one of the more emotionally impactful experiences between children and parents.”

More than language

While lauded for helping children to learn necessary verbal and learning skills, literacy experts and pediatricians say reading to children from birth benefits children long after they’re reading on their own.

A study published in Pediatrics in 2010 found that children who were not read to as kids were at an increased risk of not being ready for school by age 6 and were also more likely to experience socioeconomic disadvantages into adulthood, including low self-esteem, depression, behavior problems, social isolation and were five times more likely to report poor health as adults.

The study also listed the most common obstacles that prevent parents from reading to kids as having three or more children in the family, two or more moves in the same year, parental depression and the inability to speak English.

It’s completely understandable that parents dealing with social or psychological pressures may have a harder time prioritizing storytime with their children. Even for families that don't contend with serious issues, it's arguably harder than it used to be to find time for reading when the majority of married couples with children see both spouses working.

Yet, it's when families contend with problems that children need storytime the most, Shearman said.

“When there’s lots of stress in the family, especially if they’re low-income where the parents are stressed about supporting the family or if there’s abuse, that toxic stress affects children,” Shearman said. “Engaging with children with an activity like reading is a way of combatting that toxic stress.”

Harvard University’s Center for the Developing Child has researched how “toxic stress” — that is, stress that results in excessive or prolonged stress responses like prolonged stress hormone elevation and elevated heart rate — can inhibit child development. The ability to deal with emotional stressors of any intensity is what child development experts call “resilience” — and many recommend reading as a primary source of how to learn it.

Harvard suggests that supportive interactions like the kind fostered when parents and children read together can help bring children's emotions back to normal.

Karen Petty, an early childhood development professor at Texas Women’s University, wrote a report in 2012 about how children’s books are the perfect venue to teach kids emotional resilience because children learn by absorbing and mimicking behavior of the book characters. Petty called these life lessons found in some children’s books “protective factors," such as children learning how to deal with their emotions as the book characters learn how to cope with their own.

“Although we can’t prevent adversity or unpleasant experiences from happening to children, we can minimize the distress they feel by teaching them a vocabulary of emotions,” Petty wrote.

Nathan Lueth reads to Katja Lueth after story time at Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul, Minn., on Oct. 6, 2016. | Jenn Ackerman, for the Deseret News

Whited also said reading to kids has more minor social benefits, like patience and expanding their attention spans — what she called “life practice.”

“They’re basic human skills. People forget that,” Whited said. “It’s language development, but it's also sitting, listening, taking turns — all the old-timey good stuff we’ve done for thousands of years but have recently forgotten to make time for.”

Stronger families

Although storytime is thought of as a children’s activity, experts say it’s just as valuable for parents and families.

“It can be a way to form those important connections very early,” High said. “Reading is something fathers especially can partake in that’s important because they sometimes don’t feel as involved when their children are very, very young.”

High says she often recommends storytime to new parents, both for bonding and for comfort when they may feel helpless. She always recommends James Marshall’s picture book “George and Martha” to new parents after one of her infant patients had a seizure at birth and was placed in the ICU.

“It was so sad, they were so terrified, like anyone would be, so I gave them this book and told them to read to her,” High said. “Reading is something parents can always do, even when they can’t do much else.”

High attended the little girl’s fourth birthday party years later to find the parents were still reading the book to her at bedtime.

While many parents phase out bedtime stories when their children can read for themselves, there’s some evidence that keeping the practice through elementary school may forge deep emotional bonds between child and parent.

While that may seem odd or unnecessary to many parents, it wouldn’t necessarily be unwelcome. A 2014 study from Scholastic found that 50 percent of 6-8 year-olds reported that they wished their parents had not stopped reading books to them once they learned to read and 86 percent said they enjoyed being read to.

In a 2010 New York Times article, New Jersey college student Kristen Brozina detailed the importance of she and her father’s tradition of reading together, extending drastically from infancy to her first day of college in 2006. Brozina said having her father, a single school librarian, read to her every night reinforced their relationship during family tragedies and her teen years, when most parents and children are at odds.

“In high school, I had friends who never talked to their parents. It never occurred to me not to,” Brozina told The Times. “If someone takes care of you, you want to be with them.”

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Brozina’s story might be an extreme case, but it demonstrates what Shearman says is the most important takeaway for any child: Connection to the first and most important people in their lives, their parents.

“Connecting and engaging with your child is the most important thing you can do and reading is a very practical way to do that, even if they don’t understand the words yet,” Shearman said. “I think all parents want to do what’s best for their kids. All it takes is 20 minutes a day to make a world of difference.”

Email: chjohnson@deseretnews.com

Twitter: ChandraMJohnson