Our Views: Reading for good health

Summer is the time of year when children’s reading gets a special profile, with summer library programs across Louisiana offering youngsters the chance to engage books not just as an educational chore, but a pleasure, a way of life.

That’s an especially welcome idea in a state that lags the nation in literacy, a reality that deeply complicates Louisiana’s economic and social well-being.

Now, from the American Academy of Pediatrics, comes the news that exposing children to books early isn’t just an educational issue, but a key factor in promoting public health.

Researchers have known for years now that a lot of human brain development occurs in the first three years of life. That means if children don’t get an abundance of mental stimulation early, they could be seriously challenged throughout life. And reading to a child is a crucial part of a child’s early development. Educators have promoted that principle for generations, but brain science is now validating the value of reading to children.

That’s why the AAP, which is better known for its medical advice on immunizations and breastfeeding, weighed in this summer with a recommendation that parents read to their children early and often.

The AAP is asking thousands of its member pediatricians across America to recommend to parents that they begin reading to their children early — and on a daily basis. The organization wants this idea stressed to mothers and fathers every time their children visit the doctor.

“It should be there each time we touch bases with children,” Dr. Pamela High, who wrote the policy, told The New York Times. For many parents, of course, reading aloud to small children is already a regular habit. But in many poor families, where parents often have low literacy skills themselves, children miss out on this early exposure to literacy. It’s a problem that greatly hampers the ability of these youngsters to succeed in school.

But even in more affluent families, the practice of reading aloud to children can get overlooked. “The reality of today’s world is that we’re competing with portable digital media,” another pediatrician, Dr. Alanna Levine, told The Times. “So you really want to arm parents with tools and rationale behind it but why it’s important to stick to the basics of things like books.”

This message also underlines the vital role of public libraries, where children and adults engage with books and with the storytelling that is often at the center of programs at libraries. In south Louisiana, in part because of rebuilding libraries after the storms and floods of 2005, there is a renaissance of libraries in the greater New Orleans area. In Lafayette, the main library is under renovation. The dramatic spaces of the new main library in Baton Rouge, and the promise of another new space for books and programming downtown, provide wonderful venues for fun and learning alike.

The AAP’s new recommendation is also a good reminder that amidst all the talk about education reform, the principle responsibility for advancing children’s mental development rests with parents. That message can’t be stressed enough here in Louisiana, which has so much catching up to do in educating the next generation.