North Coast JournalFeb. 1995 - HEALTHWISE


Time well spent

by Lesley Meriwether

There is still a lot a winter left and that means a lot of time left to spend indoors. It is a good opportunity to consider how we spend our indoor time. One area to consider is the time we spend reading, either alone or to others.

My love of books began when I was young. It was greatly promoted by an overly controlling father who used "restriction" as his form of discipline. Because I was an adolescent prone to "talking back," I spent many hours alone in my room. During this time I read and absorbed ideas, information and experience.

As parents we introduce our children to the world of written language. We teach our children what words mean and how to express feelings with words. Children are expected to master 300 new words a year while they are in school. Reading greatly enhances their vocabulary beyond this number.

Attention to the written word can begin early. One of my patients read nursery rhymes to her unborn child and reported that the baby settled down as she read. This also gave the mother an excuse to rest. You can also develop an appreciation for the rhythms of language in infants. If they are crying and you whisper poetry to them, they will often fall silent, entranced.

Many book lovers began as rapt listeners to bedtime stories. Usually young children love being read to. It provides a time for intimacy and closeness, for being comforted and for feeling special.

Holding a child on your lap or snuggling them close to you provides both of you with a reassurance. Physical contact along with being read to gives positive experience and memories about books and reading. As little ones grow older they can share in reading aloud. Reading together in this way helps children develop their vocabulary, reading skills and confidence.

Another advantage to reading is that books offer a vastly different form of stimulation than the other visual media: videos and television. However, up to about 10 hours a week of TV shows a small positive correlation between the time children spend watching TV and their school achievement, according to the Report of the Commission on Reading. The commission also found that TV programs especially designed to have educational value for children can promote reading. Reading engages our imagination and the mind takes on the task of filling in the visual images that the words suggest.

It is never too early to introduce a child to the thrill of a good story. Writers like Beatrix Potter, the creator of "The Tales of Peter Rabbit," easily capture the imagination of children and adults. When I was in England, one of my favorite excursions was to Potter's home, Hilltop Farm. There were more adults than children visiting the farm and all of them talked about their love of her stories. Many of these enthusiasts were pushing 70!

When you read to children you can use the experience as an opportunity to talk about the characters, the situation or how the story might relate to the child's life or circumstances. Ask questions about what the child thinks and encourage him or her to make up different endings or scenarios. This gives the characters or the story a life of its own. If you haven't seen children's books recently you have a wonderful treat in store. They are filled with beautiful illustrations and stories about a vast array of topics.

Almost any difficult situation that children might experience is covered in a story. This includes topics such as moving, starting school, difficulty making friends, a pet dying and parents getting a divorce.

In 1970 Iris Origo wrote in her book "Images and Shadows": "It is the extreme concreteness of a child's imagination which enables him, not only to take from each book exactly what he requires - people, or genii, or tables and chairs - but literally to furnish his world with them." Whatever our age, books enrich our lives.

Lesley Meriwether is a registered nurse and psychotherapist with the Arcata Family Medical Group.

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