It’s 1993, and I’m terrified. Heart pounding, sweaty palms. What was I thinking when I agreed to do this? I’m preparing to lead the rhyme “Itsy Bitsy Spider” to a group of smiling, drooling babies and their caregivers. The dozing newborns terrify me. Because they’re sleeping, their parents will probably watch my every zany move.
Back then, inviting babies into libraries was not a widespread practice. Today, library services focusing on early literacy and learning are edging towards being common. But “common” doesn’t mean “essential.” Essential is what our early literacy programs need to be—especially if we want children’s librarian jobs to be considered necessary community services.
Make it your mission this year to increase early literacy services at your site by offering at least one nursery-rhyme-based program a month for ages birth to two years old. If you already feature programs starting at a set age, say, 12 months, then gradually lower that age until you are at zero.
Yes, zero. The benefits of attracting caregivers with sleepy four week olds, who will most likely snooze through your entire Mother Goose program, are priceless. By imparting our expertise, we’re giving new parents the instant gratification of thinking, “I just did something good for my baby”—while also providing an inviting place for them to meet and swap parenting stories.
Some argue that a four week old won’t gain anything from this. Yet research shows that when babies hear nursery rhymes, they also hear the sounds our language makes—a necessary experience to later assemble those sounds into myriad possible structures to make words.
It is, therefore, an essential part of our jobs to teach caregivers that the simple acts of reading, talking, writing, singing, and playing with their babies—activities specifically championed in the early learning initiative Every Child Ready to Read (ECRR2)—will lead to educational gains once children enter school.
Still not convinced? Back in 2001, author Mem Fox noted in her book Reading Magic (Harcourt) that “experts in literacy and child development have discovered that if children know eight nursery rhymes by heart by the time they’re four years old, they’re usually among the best readers by the time they’re eight.”
If I offered monthly Mother Goose programs with 12 nursery rhymes per session, that would provide 144 annual opportunities for babies and caregivers to hear those rhymes. Think about how often caregivers might hum them afterwards to their babies: In the car or the bath, on the changing table, snuggled up with a breast or bottle. Suddenly, their two month old is on the road to becoming one of those “best readers” by age eight.
Troubling statistics about early learning make our jobs even more important. Media reports state that today’s parents don’t recite nursery rhymes with their young children on a regular basis, “either because they do not consider them to have educational value or that they believe nursery rhymes are ‘old fashioned’ or find them embarrassing to recite to their children,” according to an article in a 2011 issue of CELLreviews. Moreover, “only 50 percent of the youngest generation of parents know all the words to traditional nursery rhymes,” the article reported. By inviting that zero-year-old babe into your library, you’re helping to reverse this trend.
Perhaps you’re one of the early literacy champions out there who can confidently say, “I already do this.” My plea: Do more. Climb to the next ladder rung. Conquer the “nots”: Not enough time. Not enough money. Not enough staff.
When we provide these services, we become more than children’s librarians: We’re early learning experts. We introduce nursery rhymes to new generations of learners a nd share the power of rhyme with caregivers. We show parents how to build the early literacy foundation that kids need to enter school ready to learn. We take that first step in creating lifelong library users.
We are in this together, committed to making a difference in children’s lives, starting at age zero.