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Why stuffed animals may be the key to helping your kids learn to read

Reading books
New research out of Japan suggests that stuffed animals may hold the key to getting kids interested in learning to read. AP Photo

Learning to read is a major milestone for youngsters, but is there a way to make it easier for them to accomplish? New research out of Japan suggests that stuffed animals may hold the key to getting kids interested in learning to read.

The Japanese researchers pointed to popular programs in which children attend sleepovers at libraries. With their stuffed animals in tow for the slumber party, librarians had the toys “hand-pick” books they wanted to read with their owners.

Turns out, stuffed animals’ involvement encouraged kids to read more to them, even long after the sleepover took place. This moved the onus on reading from parents to kids so kids were reading on their own, the scientists out of Okayama University, Kanazawa University and the Osaka Institute of Technology say.

“Some children actually showed a picture book to the stuffed animals. It was really like a friendship. In our study, the stuffed animal sleepover program increased the number of children who read to [their toys]. The program would contribute to the smooth transition from passive – parents reading picture books to children — to active reading: children voluntarily reading picture books,” Dr. Yoshihiro Okazaki, the study’s lead author, told Global News.

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Okazaki is a developmental psychologist in Japan, focusing on studying children’s imagination and how it applies to social sciences.

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“This means that a new behaviour pattern emerged that the children had not exhibited before. We did not expect anything like this,” Okazaki said.

Some parents even said that their kids looked after their stuffed animals more, creating a “thoughtful consideration of others.”

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Right now, parents expose their kids to picture books by the time they’re a year or two old. By elementary school, kids move into active reading where they learn to sound out letters and words. Okazaki suggests that the program could usher in the transition earlier on, especially if kids are interested in reading with their toys.

Okazaki’s hope is to expand the library sleepover program so that it extends across Japan and around the world.

In the sleepover programs, children take their toys to the library for the night. Animals then search for books they want to read – staff and volunteers take photos of the animals exploring the library and posing in front of the books for the kids to see.

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The kids are sent home with handfuls of borrowed books to read with their toys.

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In the study, Okazaki organized a “book night party” for 42 preschool-aged kids. The scientists studied kids’ reading behaviour that day, after three days and after one month to see how often they were practicing reading.

Right after the sleepover, the kids were reading more but the effects lingered weeks later, too. Kids even got a boost with a reminder of the sleepover through photos the librarians took during their slumber party.

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“The photographs captured the children’s imagination – many children believed the stuffed animals really found the books,” Okazaki said.

Her full findings were published in the journal Heliyon.

carmen.chai@globalnews.ca