Using Books to Enhance Development

by Dr. Gerald Costa, Licensed Psychologist & Director of the YCS Institute for Infant and Preschool Mental Health

The hallmark of 2 year olds is the explosion of language, and between 2 and 5 the growth of pretend play and imagination is amazing! Our little babies, entirely dependent on us, become these separate, insistent, opinionated, verbal, creative, imaginative – sometimes real challenging and puzzling – partners!

This is both remarkable and sometimes difficult! As imagination grows, so does the child’s awareness of the world – in all of it’s wonder and even it’s dangers. So the 17 month old who could sleep through the night, now at 3 years of age thinks the shadow near his closet is a “monster”. Seventeen month olds don’t yet imagine that shadows are monsters – 3 year olds do! We sometimes refer to this as “growing” into a fear – and in fact, despite the distress it is an absolute wonderful sign of intellectual, social and emotional growth!

But let’s consider, very briefly, the varied journeys that children – your children – encounter. Some parts of the journey are “universal” in that all children experience them, and they are, for the most part, fundamental aspects of growing:

  • Distress when encountering a stranger,
  • Dealing with separation from those to whom they are attached,
  • Learning about the growing wish for independence – and all the fears and risks that accompany it,
  • Learning how to experience and express the “full drama” of all human emotions- fear, love, sadness, doubt, or loneliness,
  • Learning how to control impulses like biting, throwing, hitting,
  • Learning how to calm down when upset and learning how to best be comforted by those who love them.

I would recommend that parents of children under age 5 always select books that address core emotions that use pictures, words and stories that employ fantasy and make-believe! Classic stories like the Velveteen Rabbit, Good Night Moon, There’s a Nightmare in My Closet – all rely on imagination to grapple with very serious themes of love, fear, and coping. When children encounter very difficult experiences – like divorce of parents, or death of a loved one – books that too directly address these issues – like – “My Daddy is an Alcoholic” – almost always get read and discarded quickly, because both children and parents understand that dealing with such painful emotions and experiences always requires the use of fantasy that helps children feel strong an that momentarily brings them away from the direct reality they face, but brings them directly to the underlying core emotions that must be experienced and shared with the adult helping them.

A few brief illustrations of what I mean:

  • A 3 year old who is wanting so much to be independent, but still needs to know that he can sometimes be angry with mommy, and that she will still be there when he needs her – would love Runaway Bunny or even the more provocative Mama, Do You Love Me?
  • The 4 year old who is afraid of the dark (of course a nightlight or flashlight can help), might really begin to feel strong and powerful when she reads, There’s a Nightmare in My Closet.
  • The 5 year old who is mad and sad, because his older brother can play baseball but he can’t, would get a charge out of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (my personal favorite).
  • The child who has been adopted at age 4 and seems clingly and worried might enjoy, The Mulberry Bird: Story of Adoption, or the less direct, Are You My Mother?

So children’s book offer parents so many opportunities – both for their own education and guidance as well as their child’s emotional and social development – to explore important themes of growing up. And guess what? We adults need the exact same help throughout our lives!

Happy reading and happy parenting!

For more information and to watch Dr. Costa on video, go to our webbybites’ video “Dr. Gerard Costa Teaches How to Use Books to Enhance Development.”

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