Give a child the gift of reading and watch their anxieties slip away

Reading for as little as six minutes a day can reduce heart rate, muscle tension and stress levels by 60 per cent or more

A child watches a class on TV as another reads a book at their home in Havana, on April 23, 2020.  All schools were closed in Cuba due to the COVID-19 pandemic, something unprecedented in 60 years, not even when the strongest hurricanes hit the island. But Cubans had an ace under the sleeve: the teleclass. / AFP / YAMIL LAGE
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Laughing with your best friends daily, hugging your extended family over the weekend, counting down the days until you could play and watch sport on a Friday.

These are things which we all took for granted until they were whisked away from us recently. Contemplate how long it has taken us to process these events and changes.

Now, imagine being six years old.

Normal life in the Covid-19 era is a lot for young minds to process. Children miss their friends and school – life. They are not used to spending all their time at home; nor are they used to learning in environments devoid of peer collaboration.

A change in routine like this can lead to anxiety and fear, which children may find hard to verbalise. Parents can also unknowingly pass their own fears and worries about coronavirus on to their children.

While children use smartphones, video games and movies to unwind, one of the most effective methods of reducing stress may have been sitting on our shelves the whole time: reading.

The World Health Organisation has acknowledged the effectiveness of reading as a strategy to aid children’s mental health amidst the coronavirus pandemic. Across the globe, almost 90 per cent of the world’s children are now studying from home.

Earlier this month, the WHO and Unicef launched #ReadTheWorld campaign, in association with the International Publishers Association, an initiative aimed at connecting young people who may be experiencing newfound feelings of anxiety, stress and isolation while they are away from their peers.

Popular children’s authors are reading extracts of their books to millions of children and young people living in the uncharted territory of isolation.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 15 MARCH 2020. Parents thinking outside of the box to keep their kids engaged and entertained now that schools are closed. Zayyan Furquan(6) reading abook in the reading corner his parents set up for him at home. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Patrick Ryan. Section: National.
Zayyan Furquan, 6, makes use of the reading corner his parents set up for him at home in Dubai, 15 March, 2020. Antonie Robertson / The National

A study from Mindlab International at the University of Sussex in England shows reading to be an effective tool in reducing stress. Reading lowered stress levels by 68 per cent, which is more than all other activities tested including: talking a walk (42 per cent), listening to music (61 per cent), drinking tea (54 per cent) and playing video games (21 per cent.) Reading for as little as six minutes a day can reduce heart rate, muscle tension and stress levels by 60 per cent or more.

Life in the Covid-19 era is a lot for young minds to process. Children miss their friends and school – life

“Reading can be very beneficial for children dealing with adversity in many ways," says Dr Thoraiya Kanafani, a clinical psychologist at Dubai's Human Relations Institute and Clinics. "It allows a child to learn more words and by building vocabulary they are able to express how they feel and name their emotions. It helps reduce anxiety through engaging their imagination to engross themselves in positive narratives, as well as creating their own narratives where they are the heroes.”

(FILES) This file photo taken on April 20, 2020 shows an educator reading books with children in the "L'etoile du berger" institution for children in social or parental distress in La Mulatière near Lyon, during the 35th day of a strict lockdown in France aimed at curbing the spread of the COVID-19 infection caused by the novel coronavirus.  / AFP / JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK
An educator reads to children in France, in the "L'etoile du berger" institution for children in social or parental distress in La Mulatière near Lyon, during the lockdown, April 20. Jean-Philippe Ksiazek / AFP

Dr Kanafani adds: “By activating the imagination, reading allows a child to distract themselves from the world around them and enter a fantastical world where they can strengthen their resilience and emotional adjustment.

Reading allows children to understand complex events in simplistic ways so that they can feel less helpless and powerless when they have a better grip on the situation at hand.”

In addition to improving focus and concentration, reading develops children’s understanding of the world around them.

As young minds become familiar with fictional characters, they learn to process their feelings and develop empathy.

In turn, they begin to understand their emotions. When children read, they are distracted from their worries. There Is an array of benefits to reading aloud to young children.

Here is what parents can do to establish reading routines at home:

Be a role model

Show children that you value books. This will have a positive impact on their own beliefs about stories. Talk about the books you are reading and take an interest in theirs too.

Choose age-appropriate books 

Encourage children to find their passion by helping them find books related to their interests. Football fans will love stories about their favourite game. It is important to let children choose what they read to promote reading for pleasure.

Read more than books

Comic books, short stories, poems and magazines are all forms of fiction which children enjoy. Wordless picture books can also stimulate the imagination and develop vocabulary and divergent thinking.

Create a special space

You can make a reading den or just a comfortable spot on the sofa where you can lose yourself in a good book.

Make reading a routine 

Daily reading will ensure a child looks forward to calm time away from screens while they are studying online. Routine will help your children feel safe and secure in these unpredictable times.

As the WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, “We understand the fear and anxieties many feel and know how the joy of reading can stimulate young minds, ease tensions and provide hope.”

The message is clear: now is a good time to pick up a book.

Claire Heylin is Primary English Lead at Deira International School in Dubai

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