The Best Stories for Young Children
Before the advent of all access TV, phones that play videos and games, and movies that can be accessed at any time and from anywhere, parents used to plan bedtime around reading stories together. It is not uncommon to hear a small child say, “I want Horton Hears a Who!” But, is it the same for the child’s brain when he/she watches the animated book as when he/she hears it read by a parent or caregiver?
According to Dr. John Sutton, author of a study on the effect of screen time on very small children’s brains, “In a single generation, the explosion of screen-based media has transformed the experience of childhood, from TV and videos, to an unlimited range of content available at any time via portable devices that can be challenging to monitor.” He goes on to say that digital media use is growing so quickly that there is no way to quantify the effects.
The study found that there are brain changes in a child according to the type of story read or audio heard to indicate that there is a specific type of story that is just right for little ears. They likened this to the Goldilocks effect where some media was too “hot,” some was too “cold,” and some was “just right.”
Twenty-seven 4-year-old children were evaluated through MRI imaging for four types of stimulation to see which format caused the most positive connections for language, visual imagery, and learning.
The first was strictly audio based. The audio was too “cold,” meaning that the connectivity was low because the children’s brains were working too hard.
The second was visually based animation. The animation was “too hot,” with a lot of activity in the audio and visual portions of the brain but not much connectivity.
The third was a story book with images. This was “just right” as the brain did something known as scaffolding, where the images helped the words to make sense. The story book helped them build muscle for bringing those images to life. These are the connections we should foster.
The Levels of Media
The study found that “too hot” animation produced a dump of information that was too fast to process properly. Dr. Hutton voiced concern that this type of media does not develop enough integration or connections.
The “too cold” media caused too much work for the brain in processing the language with no images to help comprehension and integration.
The “just right” story book with simple images allowed the children’s brains to use the images as a scaffold for the words, causing connections and integration of information. An additional variable that was not tested but was projected to have a strong impact was that when an adult reads a story to a small child, it is usually with some sort of human connection such as sitting in a lap.
This study has critical implications for teachers of young children as reading to students can form crucial connections for their small brains that benefit them as they get older. Science shows that thoughtfully choosing stories that allow for the most scaffolding is the best way to build comprehension skills for little ones.