Enriching Children’s Literature: Building Your Child’s Thinking and Emotional Skills through Interactive Reading

byMark Gardner, LCSW

“Caps, caps for sale!,” you say with your best pitch-man voice. Your child is riveted and thus begins a wonderful interaction between you and your child – and some silly monkeys. The reading of Caps for Sale – and others of its ilk, are a cherished part of daily life with young children.

What if I told you that your time reading stories like this with your child could get even better? That using stories like Caps For Sale and other children’s literature classics can be used to help build their cognitive and life skills and still be fun? Well, it’s true.

There’s a new program out from the organization that brought us “Mind in the Making, The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs” – a wonderful book and website by Ellen Galinsky about the crucial life skills every child needs and the foundational, cognitive executive functions that underly them.

It’s called the First Book, “Mind in the Making” Book Collection. It allows parents, grandparents, teachers, and other caregivers to use many of the books they already have on their shelves to help children acquire these important abilities. In a second we’ll take quick look at how this works, using one of my favorite books, Caps for Sale.

First, though, I want to give you the broad overview of the program. You can check this out on the following webpage: http://mindinthemaking.org/firstbook/.

There you will see a list of what are called “Tip Sheets” for almost 90 children’s books. They can be immediately downloaded by clicking the link (or links if there’s a Spanish version available).

They are organized by life skill and age range. The seven life skills are Focus & Self Control, Perspective Taking, Communicating, Making Connections, Critical Thinking, Taking on Challenges, and Self-Directed, Engaged Learning. The four age ranges are birth to 2, 3 to 5, 6 to 8, and 9 to 12.

In case you can’t bring up the link, here are a few examples of some of the classics in action:

  • Focus and Self Control, 3 – 5: The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss;
  • Perspective Taking, 3 – 5: Fish is Fish by Leo Leonni;
  • Communicating, 3 – 5: The Lion and the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney
  • Critical Thinking, 3 – 5: If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Numeroff;
  • Taking on Challenges, 6 – 8: Horton Hears a Who! by Dr. Seuss; and
  • Taking on Challenges, 6 – 8: Dinosaurs Before Dark (Magic Treehouse, Book 1) by Mary Pope Osborne

Focusing on one life skill per book, each tip sheet spotlights ways you can read the book and interact with your child about what he/she sees and hears, expanding on what’s happening with the characters and exploring other themes in the book. This “interaction” with your child, yourself and the book is a technique called “serve and return” and is the process by which the fun, lessons, life skills and executive functions are acquired by your child.

The foundational cognitive-emotional executive function “skills are skills you use to manage your attention, your feelings, your thoughts and your behavior to reach your goals. They included being able to pay attention, remember information, think flexibly and exercise self control.”

Brief descriptions about the life skills utilized in First Book can be found here:

So, to illustrate this, let’s take a brief look at Caps For Sale, which is in the Making Connections life skill category and can be used for children in the 3 – 5 age range.

If you’d like to follow along, check out this link to the First Books web site page for Caps for Sale:

While reading the story, the “Tip Sheet” encourages you to notice with your child how the peddler always puts his caps on in the same order: checked cap, gray, brown, blue and then red caps. You’re encouraged to check this on each page with your child. Does this always happen? As noted on the tip sheet, the skill is stated as, “Making Connections involves putting things into categories.”

The three other tips involve 1) Counting the caps and having your child count how many on each page (skill: “Making Connections involves seeing that symbols stand for real things.”); 2) Guessing what will happen next, e.g., where are the caps when the peddler wakes up? and what will the monkeys do after the peddler stamps his feet? (skill: “Making Connections involves making guesses about the future.”); and 3) Becoming so angry that you can’t figure out a problem – what can you do when you feel angry? (skill: “Making Connections between your own and other’s experiences can provide a powerful learning opportunity.”).

So, when you come to the end of Caps for Sale and utter that last call, “Caps! Caps for Sale” you’ll not only have gone on a fun journey, you’ll have helped your child expand his or her thinking and emotional skills.

In addition to the First Book Tip Sheets being a great addition to your own story time at home with your child, these can be great fun on playdates or car rides or for your child’s teacher or care provider to use at school or child-care setting.

Have fun reading!

More information about Mind in the Making can be found at http://www.mindinthemaking.org.