Harvey Cox shares with us his observations of babies and toddlers and books.
Before I became an educational psychologist I was a father. It was thus no surprise when I was told in lectures on child development that babies were sociable beings, fascinated almost from birth by the human face. My son had taught me that. He also taught, and his sister repeated the lesson, that to a baby all the world is new. One inquisitive crawler, who continually tested the nature of every object he met, left teethmarks on some of our record sleeves that bear mute witness to the apt title of the IBBY seminar.
There was little, if anything, said in those lectures nine years ago about the place of books in the development of pre-school children, particularly babies. That may have been because there was little published specifically for the youngest age group. I had realized before then that one of the most splendid things about being a parent is the license it gives you to do childish things. Among these was discovering picture books. I remembered garish annuals and the ‘Pookie’ books from my childhood, but not until 1972 did I start to find out about authors and illustrators such as Brian Wildsmith. Quentin Blake, Helen Oxenbury, and Shirley Hughes, who make a bookshop such a delight. Since then the range of books directly aimed at very young children has increased dramatically. As a father I regret that they were not available when my children were tiny. As someone working daily with babies and toddlers I rejoice.
The baby, who is also a scientist, does not at first understand the nature of a book. It is a brightly coloured “thing” and, like a rattle, or a plastic brick, or a saucepan, will be subjected to various experiments involving all the senses. Each page exists in its own right. It can be shown in every culture across the world that babies do not begin until nine months old to understand that an object continues to exist when they cannot see it. Before then, turning a page eclipses one experience and presents another that is totally new. Eric Carle in Catch the Ball has provided a brilliant device to help bridge the transition between this stage and that where the child realises the continuity within a story. A cardboard disc, representing the ball, passes from animal to animal on a string through holes in the board pages. It remains as a permanent object throughout the story, ideal for this early stage of cognitive development, as well as requiring simple shape perception and fine motor control.
John and Elizabeth Newson write in Toys and Playthings of babies having `a hunger for happenings’. For a baby to have a person close to her, presenting patterns of colour that change frequently, making interesting sounds, like animal noises, or the names of things, or nursery rhymes, is a happening that meets most of the criteria for an ideal experience, in a baby’s terms. It is also providing that adult mediation of the experience that helps the child to understand what makes a book different from a rattle or a saucepan.
Let us now skip a year or so and meet Jenny, who is two and a half. She and her mother have shared books for most of her life. She has almost mastered the physical properties of them, turning pages with only the occasional crinkle. In this picture she is looking at a book that has only just been given to her. The pleasure she takes in exploring a new page is evident and her mother need do very little to complete the experience. In this we see one of the most significant changes between the first and third years. In many respects this is a meeting of equals. The pictures speak for themselves and the mediation that is needed is different. The adult’s importance lies in feeding the most rapidly developing feature of the child, her language.
From the conversational cooing and babbling of the baby have come the first words. By the age of two most children have started to put them together. Now language development takes wing. Over the next two years children acquire a greatly increased vocabulary. Even more important, they gain the linguistic structures which enable humans to use that vocabulary in the multitude of ways that express an infinity of meanings. At this age the text of the book is as significant as the pictures.
When this picture was taken, Jenny had insisted that her mother get a version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears from upstairs. (It was a part of the bedtime ritual.) It was fetched and her mother started to read it, but Jenny did not want that. She wanted to tell us about it; which she did – at length, discoursing about the animals in the pictures and weaving them into her version of the story. It had become a peg for her imagination.
That possibly sums up a vital quality of books. The reader can repeat an experience at will. The child has total control over the speed at which she turns the pages. She can let her thoughts wonder round an image, whether pictorial or verbal, and when the trip is completed nothing else has happened.
The fact that books offer an experience that can be repeated is clearly important to children. They tend to be creatures of habit, happiest when their world is stable and the order of the day’s events reasonably predictable. An element in this can be the meaning they place upon events in books, extracting what is important to them and making it their own. Jenny encountered Roger Hargreaves’ Mr Snow last Christmas. The figure of Father Christmas in the story has great potency several months later. Whenever the book is produced she shows much excitement, as if these pictures enable her to recapture some of the excitement she experienced then. Each viewing of these pages adds to an accumulation of joy.
The fact that a book provides a repeatable experience is also important in helping the child to learn about topics which are beyond her cognitive scope at any stage of her development. To paraphrase T. S. Eliot, “A good children’s book communicates before it is understood”. The adult world is complicated. Children’s imaginative play shows how they rehearse activities, roles and emotions. Books give another way of exploring what may be difficult or frightening terrain. The physical closeness of the adult is a reassurance. The fact that the character involved is a bear, or a cat, or a princess, places the subject at one remove, where it is less personal, less threatening. A book can also be closed, which gives a child some control over the experience. And while it may be too frightening or worrying now, it can be picked up again months later, when she is better able to cope, and thoroughly enjoyed.
It should also be emphasized that, as a sociable being, the young child appreciates anything that gives her a shared experience with another person. A few minutes spent together over the latest acquisition from the library, or leafing through a battered favourite is valuable to both adult and child in helping to build an even firmer and warmer relationship.
At two and a half Jenny has none of the difficulty with the continuity of stories that is experienced by younger children. The novelty of being able to manipulate part of Eric Carle’s What’s for Lunch here caters to an increasing mastery of physical skills. Children are physical animals: watch the way they giggle. It also provided a nice example of symbolic play. When the monkey reached the bananas a few pages later his mouth was placed against them so “Monkey eat ‘nana!”
It will seem obvious to the readers of this magazine that introducing a young child to books is laying the foundations for future literacy, but a significant percentage of parents still do not seem to realise this. It seems a long time since the Bullock Report recommended that pupils in secondary schools should learn how language develops and how they, as the parents of the future, could help their children. Meanwhile, Jenny has already learnt that the story of The Tiger Who Came To Tea by Judith Kerr has a set form. She says “Owp!” with glee when the tiger eats all the sandwiches on the plate. She says “Rumpeta, rumpeta, rumpeta” when the Elephant goes down the road with the Bad Baby. She is grasping the fact that the story is conveyed in those marks on the page. Soon she will want to know what they mean.
Harvey Cox is an Educational Psychologist in Tameside.