Thursday, May 26, 2005

Choosing Quality Toys: First Books

Experts have been telling new parents for years now that you should read aloud to your baby from birth onward. They say that reading aloud to children as early as possible and as often as possible will help them achieve greater success in school and learn to read more easily when the time comes. Speaking as a teacher, they are absolutely right! And it's not too hard to read aloud to your little one right after birth. I remember many, many afternoons resting my baby daughter on my knee and rocking gently as I read articles from my favorite magazines. It doesn't much matter what you read to the baby, as long as he or she is hearing your voice, the cadences of the language, and feeling your love and attention. However, things begin to change in a few short months. Babies start to pay more attention to the world around them and they become better equipped to focus on things like books. You'll want to switch over to more age appropriate reading material very soon! Here's what to look for when choosing books for your baby.

The first concern is the book's construction. It doesn't take long for infants to begin to reach, grab, and pull at books. Like everything else, books will go into baby's mouth for a thorough exploring with tongue and lips. Books for babies need to be safe for these kinds of explorations and sturdy enough to stand up to this kind of use. Be sure that the books you buy for your little one are well-made and that the pages are firmly attached together. If there are three-dimensional decorations, make sure they cannot possibly come off-you don't want to give your baby a choking hazard without thinking! Colors and inks need to be waterproof or colorfast. You don't want the book's colors to get into your baby's system. Make sure the book states that it is completely nontoxic, and follow the age recommendations provided by the manufacturer.

There is a growing line of plastic books being marketed for the very young. These have some great advantages: they are nearly unbreakable, they are washable, and they are very sturdy. Plastic pages will stand up to your baby's first attempts to turn pages and also be able to withstand being picked up by the covers or by the pages, as babies will do. Another plus of plastic books is their bright, safe colors. Babies just adore bright, primary colors, and these books have the colors put right into the plastic if they are of high quality. You'll want to steer clear of the cheap versions that have the colors painted or screen printed on. Plastic books last a very long time, but do be careful about leaving them in places where they might get hot. When plastic overheats, it can become brittle and crack. Check the books regularly for damage of this sort, and get rid of any that are flaking, cracking, or peeling.

Cloth books are the traditional first choice for baby's first ventures into literature. These books have squishable, squeezable pages, and they are very easy for little ones to grab onto. Make sure that the seams are firmly attached and that the edges of the book are bound in such a way as to prevent fraying. Ideally, the book should be washable! Make sure the dyes used are color-fast, and that the color doesn't rub off or run when wet.

There are also a number of books on the market that are made of a heavy cardboard covered with a laminated or glossy surface. Most of these can be wiped clean when needbe with a damp cloth. Again, be sure the pages are firmly attached, and that the edges are finished so that they won't come undone. It's also wise to avoid cardboard books that have sharp corners. Everything should be rounded to keep baby safe and to prevent paper cuts and similar injuries.

No matter what construction type you choose, there are several kinds of books that should be in your baby's first book collection. Each serves a different developmental purpose and will help your baby build skills that will be needed later in life. It's a great idea to have a wide variety of books available for your little one, so collect as many as you can and take advantage of your local library or toy exchange to supplement your own collection.

Babies respond very well to books that contain pictures of other babies and different kinds of faces. Scientists think that little ones are built to seek the kinds of patterns they see in faces from birth so that they learn to socialize. Books that are themed around pictures of babies will quickly become favorities. In addition, these are often pictures of babies at stages slightly ahead of your young infant. The pictures might be of older infants and toddlers who are doing things that your baby hasn't yet tried or isn't yet capable of. These examples can help your child develop the important skills of imitation and learning from example.

Many books for infants are picture-naming books designed to build vocabulary skills. They are full of clear pictures, in the form of either simple line drawings or photographs of common objects. The picutres are labelled. The book doesn't attempt to tell a story, but rather is intended to help the child understand more about the world around him or her. Many also have the pictures grouped into logical categories, such as things in different rooms of the house or types of tools or animals. Your child will learn about names of important things and also will develop categorization skills by using these kinds of books. Start by pointing to the different items and naming them with your baby. As your little one gains motor control, you'll be able to say the name of an item and have your baby point to it on the page. Finally, when baby is learning to talk, you can point to an item and ask "What's this?" These books also will help your conversations when you aren't reading. You will find that your child will make connections between things in the world around him or her back to the book where the pictures are. The ability to move between the concrete and the abstract in this way is an important intellectual leap that is one of the foundations of later school learning.

Be sure your child has some nursery rhyme books, as well. Nursery rhymes build a sense of language and also help kids develop skills called "phonemic awareness." Phonemic awareness skills are the foundation for later learning in phonics and spelling, and development starts very early in infancy when your baby is exposed to rhyming, alliteration, and similar word play that nursery rhymes are wonderful for providing. It's also important that your child begin to learn to keep track and pay attention to these little stories. Later in life, he or she will need to focus attention for increasing periods of time, and the rhymes are the perfect size to begin the process.

The so-called "busy books" are also high on the list of must-have literature for growing babies. These books have textures and manipulative parts that baby will learn to love as time goes by. Start with the texture, touchy-feely books, because your little one will be able to participate in the reading very early on by swinging a hand to the item in the book. You'll find books with furry patches, crinkly cellophane, and many other textures to explore. There are other books that have holes drilled into the pages that are perfect for small fingers to poke into. Many of these are also counting books and will encourage your child to learn about numbers. Finally, there are the true busy books that have zippers to zip, buttons to manipulate, and so forth. These become appropriate between the ages of eighteen months to three years or so, and will help your child learn many basic skills related to dressing and other life essentials.

Finally, don't forget the alphabet books! Even though your baby won't be trying to read for several more years in all likelihood, exposure to ABC books is important. These books build vocabulary and phonemic awareness. They help your little one make the connection between printed words and their spoken counterparts. Many will build categorization skills, like animal alphabet books or ABC's of farm life.

You can see how many different jobs these early books can do in your child's life. It's almost inexpressable how important it is that you read to your child, and these sturdy first books are just the place to begin.

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