Getting the Most out of Children's Books

Reading books together is one of the best activities for parent and child to share. Children love to be read to, and sharing a book with you provides them with the pleasure of entertainment, the warmth of bonding, and the benefits of learning. It can't get any better than this, can it?

Actually, it can. When you have the time, you can make each children's book a learning experience that lasts far longer than just the time it takes to read it.

The way to do this is through integrating the arts into the story book. This is part of an approach to education that is called Creative Arts in Learning, a growing field of study.

Integrating the arts into a story book really can make it come alive. The pleasure and learning can be expanded greatly by planning simple activities that are fun and that reinforce learning. Perhaps the best way to illustrate this approach is to describe what can be done with a single children's book.

For our example, let's look at the book "The Sailor Dog," written by Margaret Wise Brown and with pictures by Garth Williams. This charming story was written back in 1953 and is still a favorite today-a multi-generation favorite!

"The Sailor Dog" is about a dog named Scuppers who wanted to go to sea. He was invited aboard an airplane, a subway train, a submarine, and a little car, but none would do; he had to go to sea. Finally, he found a boat and sailed off in it.

Aboard, Scuppers "....had a little room. In his room he had a hook for his hat and a hook for his rope and a hook for his pants and a hook for his coat and a hook for his spyglass and a place for his shoes and a bunk for a bed to put himself in."

Unfortunately, Scuppers gets shipwrecked on a deserted island. He builds a shack out of driftwood, catches some fish, and falls asleep to dream of a way of fixing his boat.

Then it comes to him, he repairs his craft and sails for an exotic foreign land. There the ragged castaway outfits himself with a fine new suit of clothes and a bushel of fresh oranges, and is off to sea once more: "And here he is where he wants to be-a sailor sailing the deep green sea." The book ends with "His Song"-two short verses about Scuppers.

The very first thing to do, of course, is to read the story together, pausing as you go to look at and discuss the illustrations. But once you've reached the end, you can derive a lot more fun from the book with activities like these:

Sing "His Song" together. We found that we could set it to the well-known tune of "Popeye the Sailorman." And introducing music into the reading experience doesn't have to stop with just singing. Collect play instruments from around the house, such as a drum, tambourine, or maracas, or improvise some from pots and wooden spoons. Tap out a rhythm on your legs. As Maurice Sendak wrote in "Where the Wild Things Are," "Let the Wild Rumpus begin!"

Create art and craft projects to enhance the story. It might be as simple as asking your child to draw pictures of his or her favorite parts of the story, but why not go further? Pull out the playdough or modeling clay, put a place mat on the table, and create Scuppers, his boat, him fishing, or anything else related to the story. You can also go out into the backyard and collect sticks and twigs to build a model of the hut that Scuppers constructed on his island.

Dramatize the story together. Children love play-acting, and it's doubly fun when a parent will participate in it with them! Roll up a piece of construction paper or use an empty toilet paper roll as a telescope, put on raincoats and rain hats-in the house!-and be Scuppers together. There's no need to stick closely to the story line; you can both make up new, spontaneous adventures for Scuppers to have.

Don't forget water play. A toy boat in the sink or bathtub has new purpose now that Scuppers is aboard in imagination. And imagination means that you and your child can play out new adventures that aren't in the book, in effect creating ongoing Scuppers stories that take up where the book leaves off. If your child is deriving pleasure from it, I'm sure that that's exactly what Margaret Wise Brown would want!

When the water play is over, sit down together at the table and write out key words from the story for your child to copy: Scuppers, sea, boat, rope, bushel, chimney, etc. Talk about any new words and supply their meaning. It might be fun for your child to write a little story using these words.

What you've been doing is integrating the arts into your child's life with the simple act of reading a story book and enjoying it with your child.

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