TEY hears from Adam Marycz about the power of books in early years settings…
Books are a bit of an obsession of mine! I have them all over my setting; where there’s any space, you’ll find books.
It’s similar in my house for my daughter, who is 3. Thankfully she loves stories, too! There are so many reasons why books and storytelling are important, not least the impact on a child’s speech, language and communication.
There’s also the awe and wonder that books create, the imagination they inspire and the opportunity for the children to forget where they are and become immersed in the stories and the characters within.
Children really enjoy sharing their own stories, too, and these could be the most powerful of all – providing children with the opportunity to use their voice, their vocabulary, and tell their stories in their own way.
Language and communication
It’s well known that children who are considered disadvantaged will likely hear less language at home (up to 30 million words across their childhood according to some research).
So, stories must be a big focus of early years provision. They’re an invaluable tool to support children to build on their vocabulary. It’s something I remember being told right at the beginning of my career by my very first manager – to ensure that we read to children several times every day.
Listening to stories provides children with the opportunity to hear new words in context and often with visual prompts which can support them to understand the meaning of these words as well as how to use them appropriately.
Stories can also support children to explore their emotions. The Worrysaurus by Rachel Bright is a great example of how books can help children to understand how they feel, and why they might feel that way. It also normalises the feeling and encourages them to accept and embrace it.
Another favourite is The Colour Monster by Anna Llenas. It’s the story of a monster whose feelings, and therefore their colours, are all mixed up and his friend, a little girl, helps him to unmuddle his feelings and understand each one. They assign a separate colour to each emotion and describe how the emotion might make you feel.
One of the amazing teachers I follow on Instagram (@theartofearlyyears_) has made emotion cards containing the appropriate colour monster and a range of words that can be used to describe each feeling.
I use these visual aids as part of my continuous provision and they also support the children to convey their feelings throughout the day, especially those who may not currently have the language to share their feelings with practitioners and peers.
Understanding the world
We have a nature shelf inspired by the Wanderlust Nature Study (@hyggeintheearlyyears). For whichever topic’s being explored – it might be ice, trees or nests – we include books on the shelf to complement the resources and extend children’s learning.
As settings look to become more eco-friendly and develop children’s awareness of the climate crisis, there are many books that can be used to support this. ‘Little People, Big Dreams’ is probably my favourite series.
Greta Thunberg, David Attenborough and Jane Goodall are all books from this series that detail the lives of these incredible climate activists and conservationists.
There’s also Mary Anning, which explores the famous palaeontologist’s discoveries of fossils and how these helped to build our understanding of dinosaurs and where they lived.
Two of my other personal favourites are Greta and the Giants by Zoë Tucker, which is based on Greta Thunberg’s climate activism, and Here We Are by Oliver Jeffers, which explores the beauty of living on Planet Earth.
Books that build a child’s knowledge of the world also include stories that are representative of different cultures, festivals, people and communities.
Representation matters. This is something I believe in strongly: the power of stories to provide positive representation to children of themselves and their families, and to explore cultures, festivals and communities that the children may not be exposed to in their daily life.
Children really need to see themselves in what they read. There’s an ever-increasing selection of stories containing positive images for children, and seeing a positive representation of themselves will strengthen a child’s self-esteem. These two go hand in hand.
I would just like to narrow in on the word ‘positive’ here. There are a lot of stories which people may argue are representative of cultures and communities, but which don’t contain positive images of these.
Unfortunately, these books instead contain harmful stereotypes which, if children are exposed to, can lead to conscious or unconscious bias. I’m not going to name any directly as I don’t want to cause harm to any community but, if you follow many early years pages on social media, I’m sure you’ll know what I mean.
It’s positive representation that matters and there are many books about cultures, festivals and communities which contain positive images and stories. Often these are ‘own voice books’, which means books that are written by representatives of these communities.
Some of my favourites include: An ABC of Equality by Chana Ginelle Ewing, AntiRacist Baby by Ibram X. Kendi, My Shadow is Pink by Scott Stuart, and The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish by Lil Miss Hot Mess.
It’s crucial that children feel able to share their own stories too, supporting their communication and language, emotional development and self-esteem. For children to be given the platform to share their stories and for them to feel heard by both their peers and adults is so important for their self-confidence and for them feel valued.
Educating the leaders of tomorrow
As you can tell, I’m a strong believer in the power of books. Books can quite literally be the foundation for change in the world.
They can help to shape the world – to educate the leaders of tomorrow about the challenges previous generations have faced and what can be done to ensure change.
Books can provide the opportunity for children to learn about themselves and each other in ways not many other things can.
They can plant the seed to normalise aspects of society which the children in turn take on board without question. LGBTQIA+, anti-racism, climate change to name just a few.
The ‘Little People, Big Dreams’ series that I mentioned earlier details the lives of many incredible figures from Martin Luther King Jr and Emmeline Pankhurst to Rosa Parks and Alan Turing. There are board book versions of some titles, too.
Some of the conversations that have happened in my setting as a result of reading these may have been uncomfortable for some, including children questioning racial segregation, but they are absolutely vital to build a child’s understanding of the challenges communities have faced throughout history.
If I had to pick one book every child should own, I would probably pick Kind by Alison Green. Not only does it contain the most wonderful illustrations by multiple recognisable illustrators but the story is beautiful.
It starts with the phrase ‘What can you do to be kind today?’ The book then explores the many ways you can be kind, from helping to carry a bag or sharing a game, to exploring why people may need kindness, such as being new to where they live because they are refugees or because they’re learning to speak a new language.
The message is clear: ‘It feels nice to be kind. And it’s a good idea, too. Because if everyone is kind… we’ll make a better world.’ Is there anything more important than that?