At Doorstep Library, we are firm believers that the impact of reading on children’s mental health goes well beyond the development of strong literacy skills. Over the last ten years of delivering our home reading projects, we have had the precious opportunity of witnessing how reading can empower children in a million different ways, as they grow up and find their feet in the world.
The issues children face today
With the impact that the recent lockdown has had on all of us, and today being National Empathy Day, we thought that we would take a moment to reflect on the powerful influence books can have on children’s wellbeing. In 2017, an NHS study found that one in eight (12.8%) 5 to 19 year olds in England had at least one mental health disorder, with emotional ones being the most prevalent .
From a very young age, children often have to deal with pressure at school, a potentially unstable situation at home, feeling isolated or struggling to fit into their social circle. They might also be affected by bereavement, families splitting up or having to take on adult responsibilities, all of which can weigh heavily on a child’s shoulders and deeply affect their wellbeing.
So, how can reading help mental wellbeing?
This is where books come into the picture. Research from the National Literacy Trust shows how increased literacy can positively impact mental wellbeing. ‘Children who are the most engaged with literacy are three times more likely to have higher levels of mental wellbeing than children who are the least engaged’ .
Emotional intelligence and confidence
Books can empower children to understand and manage complex emotions. Through a story, they can learn how to recognise what is happening inside them as they empathise with a character going through a similar situation. They feel more confident about themselves as they discover that they’re not the only ones going through a difficult experience. With the right support available, books can play a therapeutic role by creating a safe space for children who have experienced trauma, life challenges and relationship difficulties. Through a book, they can explore their emotions and vulnerability by observing a familiar feeling or situation from a distance.
However, through reading about different lives and characters, children also learn to connect and better understand the people around them. They become more aware of the richness and vastness of the world which opens their eyes to other cultures, backgrounds and life experiences. As a result, they will be more likely to reach out of their comfort zone and expand their horizons as they slowly progress into adulthood.
For preschool-age children, books are very much an interactive experience which aims to develop their speech and language skills. This enables and encourages them to share their feelings and needs with others. As they grow older, proficient readers will develop a more extensive vocabulary, gaining the means to communicate comfortably and confidently with others. A worry shared is a worry halved, so if children don’t have the right words to express their concerns, that can make them bottle up. Feelings might come to the surface in ways that are unhealthy and harder to interpret.
Creativity, escapism and fun
As with adults, reading can be a powerful and fun way for a child to unwind at the end of a long day, allowing their minds to run free from any negative thoughts they may be experiencing. For a child, a bookshelf can be the portal to an infinite number of worlds they can explore and escape to when feeling overwhelmed. Not all children respond to books in the same way: some will relate to the words, while others will be drawn to the illustrations. And a book does not have to be focused on emotions to help children with their wellbeing. Often what we need the most to cheer us up is simply a good laugh! A silly joke book that will get children rolling with laughter or a creative story involving role play can go a long way in making a child’s day. Whatever allows children to be children, is a big thumbs up from us.
We have a few tips on how to make reading an everyday part of life at home for the whole family, read more here.
At a time when everyone’s wellbeing is heavily tested, we think about our families and volunteers, and look forward to the moment when we will be able to see them again. We want to thank Mercers and our partner Give A Book for their support, which has allowed us to reach out to all of our families and send them books during this challenging period. We hope it will bring a smile to the children’s faces, while waiting for that ‘magic moment’ (to quote one of our little readers!) ‘when the book people visit’ once again.
For more information on the benefits of reading during lockdown please see our blog: The therapy of reading during lockdown