Magic Portals: Diving Into Experience through Books

My wife and I think of ourselves as fairly typical parents among our peer group. We do much of the same out-on-the-town Memphis stuff with our daughter that all of our friends with kids do, like Rock-N-Romp, the Memphis Zoo, My Big Backyard at Memphis Botanic Garden.

It’s nice seeing the large number of families taking advantage of the many experiences available to children in Memphis. But it’s especially great to see the diversity of families making these experiences a part of their family routine.

This shows how great a city Memphis is for children. It’s an accessible, open place, with a range of positive experiences offered in communities all over the city.

The Urban Child Institute’s 10 Things Every Memphis Child Should Experience Before Kindergarten has proven to be a good tool to use as a launch pad into these activities. Our family is making our way through the list as our girls (one just over two years old, the other still about five weeks away from dropping in on us) explore their early years.

Memphis’ Central Library — a playground for the mind.

Recently, I took our daughter to the Benjamin L Hooks Central Library to get her a library card (number 9 on the 10 Things list). She toddled in through the glass front doors and suddenly stopped, her eyes scanning the massive atrium filled with light, color and people.

It was a Sunday, and the place was bustling but not crowded. We had only a very short wait before the librarian was typing my daughter’s name into her computer. In seconds, the plastic card was in her small hand, her name scrawled on it in Sharpie.

With a tight grip on her new library card, she led me into the truly awesome children’s section, recently named by the Reading Rainbow blog as the 4th best children’s department in America. One look at the brightly colored, Dr. Seuss-inspired trees of the entrance and she needed no encouragement from me to stride in.

Immediately, she took a book from a shelf, found a chair and dove into the pages. I hunched into the seat next to her and looked on. It was a book about animals, with Spanish text. I know the language a little, so I read her the story and translated. She supplied the English names for most of the animals, and repeated the Spanish names.

El caballo, the horse. La vaca, the cow. El quetzal, the quetzal. El pulpo, the octopus. What kind of weird farm was this anyway? The kind that can only be found in books.

Books teach children more than just new language skills.

Books are magic portals, even the simplest ones read to children in the first months. Study after study shows that reading to and with children from the start is one of the most sure-fire ways to nurture their intellect and curiosity.

Books ignite curiosity by exposing hungry young minds to new words, ideas and objects. They expand a child’s horizons beyond his own experiences by introducing him to unfamiliar customs and cultures.

At the same time, books also show children that certain experiences are universal, from mundane daily activities like eating and bathing to emotional experiences like sadness, fear, joy. They show kids that no matter where or how people live, they are still connected to the human experience.

This knowledge can inform the world-view our children carry from childhood into their adult lives. It can promote the development of positive qualities like empathy, curiosity and patience. Books also encourage a hunger for knowledge that can make all the difference between the school years being a mandatory chore or a fascinating adventure.

Children can learn positive attitudes about reading long before kindergarten begins.

This seemingly magical appeal of books was apparent during our visit to the library. Even after our extended shared reading session, she browsed among the shelves again in search of books to take home. She eventually selected five or six, many by her favorite author Eric Carle, and we checked out. At first, she was reluctant to hand the librarian her shiny new card. But soon we managed the transaction and got the books home.

We read them over and over for the next few weeks. She learned every image and heard every word on every page. Sometimes we read a book straight through. Sometimes the pictures and text wound up being jumping-off points for conversations that veered in other directions.

On the due date, we returned them and found some new favorites. Now that she has her own library card, she’s more eager than ever to visit. She enjoys her new level of participation in the routine. And there’s every reason to believe she will continue to, as long as there are new books waiting to be read.