Nothing beats a stuffed animal clutched in little arms for the cute factor. But these cuddly critters are more than just cherished companions—they’re also a tool to boost reading skills in kids, according to a new study published in the online journal Heliyon.
In recent years, libraries in the U.S. and around the world have been hosting stuffed-animal sleepovers for their youngest patrons. Kids come to the library with their plushy toys in tow, and after a read-aloud, say goodbye to their pals. That’s when librarians and their helpers get to work, snapping photos of the stuffed animals “roaming” the stacks, “reading” books, “making” crafts, and otherwise having fun before they tuck in for the night. The next day, the kids come back to collect their companions and photos of their adventures. Some programs even have the stuffed animal “pick” a book for its owner.
Japanese researchers were curious to see if these programs had any lasting effects on kids. After organizing a book-night party for 42 preschoolers, researchers were surprised to see that the children not only gravitated more often to the picture books in their preschool classroom but read more often to their plush playthings in the days after the sleepover. When researchers came back a month later to remind children of the event by showing them the photographs again, the kids showed a renewed interest in reading aloud to their stuffies.
While Kris Lill, the children’s librarian at the Georgetown branch of the Allen County Public Library, in Fort Wayne, IN, says its difficult to know for sure what effect the library’s annual sleepovers have had kids’ reading interests, she has been struck by the overwhelmingly positive feedback by families. Since 2008, pre- and elementary-school patrons have been bringing their stuffed animals for bedtime stories, followed by a shared storytime where the kids read a board book to their beloved toys. After lullabies and goodbyes, the librarians take photos of the plushies in the stacks, listening to a story, or playing with the library’s toys. Lill and her helpers turn the photos into a memory book for each patron, presenting it and a craft made by their toy when the kids come back the following day.
“The next day, many of the kids walk around the library and eagerly try to find all the places their animals had been. They’re very interested in their animals’ experiences, and often will say things like ‘I didn’t know she liked to play with the barn! That’s my favorite thing to do, too!’ or ‘Elephant and Piggie! I know that book!’” she says.
Lill said that she and her staff were surprised by the amount of work that was involved during the first sleepover, but strongly urges other libraries considering one of these programs to just go ahead and do it. Her suggestions include:
- The more planning you can do ahead of time, the better.
- Have a helper (or two)!
- Don’t underestimate the amount of time it takes to move the animals around, set them up, and photograph them.
- Count animals every time you move them.
- Get ready for many hugs!
“I firmly believe that positive experiences with books help develop a love of reading, but this event seems to capture something special,” says Lill. “Maybe it’s the relationship between the kids and the animals or some kind of empathy the kids’ feel for their animals’ experience. But whatever it is, we get so many smiles and words of thanks from the kids and grownups.” She also gets requests to offer the program again, and often—something she’s seriously considering.
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