Storytime's Brain-Building Power | First Steps

Simple motor tasks and games boost young children's executive function and cognitive skills.

Simple motor tasks can also be brain-building activities. A motion as seemingly straightforward as crossing the midline—an imaginary vertical line separating the left and right sides of one’s body—can create new brain pathways in very young children, building the foundation for the development of cognitive skills such as reading and writing.
That’s why Julie Jackson, youth services supervisor at the Kathryn Linnemann Branch of the St. Charles City-County (MO) Library, encourages kids to bring their arms across their bodies while she does a dance with shakers during her “Time for Twos” storytime sessions. Elaine Saba, library associate at the Edgewater (MD) Library, shares rhymes that incorporate crossed arms, while Juana Flores, children’s librarian at Brooklyn Public Library’s Kings Highway branch, plays a game that encourages children to pass a ball to their neighbor.
“Any time we do crossing-the-midline activities, I point out to parents that we are helping to develop bilateral coordination,” says Mary Anderson, youth services program manager at the Augusta (KS) Public Library. “Tons of finger plays incorporate crossing the midline. Neurologically, different sides of our brain are responsible for different tasks, and each side needs to be able to communicate with the other side quickly.”
From birth to age three, more than a million neural connections are created every second. The experiences young children have, or don’t have, during this period shape brain architecture and form 90 percent of the adult brain by age five.
Libraries shouldn’t underestimate their impact in this area, says Tyson Barker, a postdoctoral research scientist at the Center for Translational Neuroscience at the University of Oregon. “They can be a critical leverage point for supporting children’s development, especially in under-resourced communities,” he says. “Even brief interactions such as reading a book with a librarian can help build young children’s brains and support their learning.”
Many storytime activities develop executive function skills, which help us self-regulate, filter distractions, remember important information, and multitask. All of this can lead to better educational outcomes, social-emotional well-being, and physical health. The Harvard Center on the Developing Child’s “Activities Guide: Enhancing and Practicing Executive Function Skills with Children from Infancy to Adolescence” reads like an outline for a library storytime. For infants, lap games, predictable rhymes, and fingerplays help build working memory and self-control. Toddlers learn self-regulation during activities such as freeze dance and action rhymes. Storytelling helps preschoolers learn to pay attention, and remembering details helps hone working memory.
Dawn LaBrosse, youth services coordinator at the Washington County (MN) Library, always ends her storytimes with Hap Palmer’s “Wiggy Wiggy Wiggles” song. “It’s a great freeze-dance tune, requiring children to carefully listen, and it’s a good way to build self-regulation skills,” she says. LaBrosse explains to caregivers how the activity can help with impulse control and self-regulation.
Looking for more brain-building tips and activities? Resources on, with input from leaders in neuroscience, psychology, parenting, and childhood development, illustrate what to do—and how it helps brain development. Parents can also download the Vroom app or sign up for Vroom text messaging.
Creating a comfortable atmosphere where adults and children feel safe and happy impacts the brain, too. Betsy Diamant-Cohen, executive director of the early literacy program Mother Goose on the Loose, notes the importance of “creating a nonjudgmental, joyful environment.”
“Uncomfortable experiences lead to heightened cortisol levels, which makes it harder to learn,” she says. “When people feel welcomed, they are open to new experiences; when those experiences are joyful, they are more likely to be remembered.”

Jessica Ralli is coordinator of early literacy programs at the Brooklyn Public Library. Rachel G. Payne is coordinator of early childhood services at BPL.

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