A mother brought two children into our clinic. The oldest was her 4-year-old son, here for his checkup. His baby sister, only a few months old, was sleeping in her stroller. At every 4-year-old checkup, part of the doctor’s job is to make sure that child is ready to think about starting school. So I asked the little boy some questions, checking to see whether he had the social skills to talk with an adult he didn’t know very well, and whether he could put together sentences.
In fact, this particular 4-year-old was outgoing and friendly, and a terrific conversationalist. He had his Reach Out and Read book, How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight? He showed me that he could find the first letter of his own name on the page in several places, and then added in the first letter of his sister’s name, for good measure. And then, of course, he wanted to talk about dinosaurs. He was proud of the book.
But something occurred to him. He pointed to his baby sister and said that she wouldn’t be able to understand the book, but she could get a baby book. Yes, I said, when she comes for her next checkup, she’ll get a baby book; a board book.
Thanks to Reach Out and Read, our pediatric clinic is full of books. Reach Out and Read is a program for pediatricians like me—and our colleagues, the family physicians and nurse practitioners who take care of children at clinics and health centers and private practices all over the United States. Through Reach Out and Read, we can help parents incorporate books and reading aloud into their children’s lives, starting when those children are babies. And when students and teachers contribute books through ClassroomsCare, those books go into our clinics and back out in the hands of young children everywhere. Their support is a big part of the reason that Reach Out and Read is able to serve 4 million children through our 4,500 Programs nationwide.
Reach Out and Read gives a book at every checkup from the 6-month visit to the 5-year checkup. That’s a total of 10 books by the time a child starts kindergarten. The books that we give in the first two years are board books, which feature pictures of baby faces, animals, and familiar objects. As children get into the toddler years, the stories become more complicated, featuring the rhymes and rhythms that children love to hear again and again! And by the preschool visits, the 3- to 5-year-olds can choose storybooks and picture books rich with legends, jokes, rhymes, and information about the world.
Growing up with books in the early years helps a child understand how stories work and how to recognize letters. Children who grow up hearing books read aloud by their parents come to associate books with the feeling of safety that comes when a young child is held on a parent’s lap, and with the familiar and much-loved voice of the parent. Books should be part of bedtime routines for babies and toddlers, and part of children’s everyday lives.
Many of our patients are growing up in families where there would otherwise be no books, because many of our clinics serve children growing up in poverty. The books that we offer at the checkup can mean the difference between growing up with books and growing up without books. Through ClassroomsCare, children are helping Reach Out and Read help other children arrive at school familiar with books and all the joys they can offer. And those children, as every teacher knows, are much more likely to be ready to learn to read. And they know that books are a grand and glorious addition to their lives and their world.
So I have to admit, we jumped the gun a little. We decided to give our 4-year-old patient the opportunity to choose a baby book, in addition to his dinosaur book. We told him that he could be the one to present his baby sister with her very first book, and I went over with him (and therefore with his mother) some advice about reading with a little baby: She’ll probably chew the book, and that’s okay. Point to the pictures and tell her what everything is. Don’t get upset if she throws the book on the floor. She’s probably really interested in everything you do, I told the proud big brother, so if you look at the book with her, she’ll learn to like books, just like you!
And I told the mother what a great job she was doing, to have a son so ready for reading, a 4-year-old so clearly familiar with books. He’s going to love school, I said, wanting both the child and the mother to hear me. He’s going to love learning to read.
Perri Klass, M.D. is a pediatrician, the National Medical Director of Reach Out and Read, and a professor of journalism and pediatrics at New York University.