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Minnesota clinics focus on children's health -- by handing out books

Years ago, my kids were rewarded with string-handled lollipops or stickers to sweeten their visits to the pediatrician's office.

But there's been a move afoot for some while now to reward tykes with a book instead — a gift that could change their futures. Reach Out and Read Minnesota annually serves more than 58,000 infants, toddlers and preschoolers through 76 medical clinics around the state. The program puts books into the hands of children from low-income families — those at high risk for reading and school problems — and encourages families to make reading a habit.

There's need for that. Lower-income students graduated at a rate of only 35 percent from Minneapolis Public Schools in 2009 and poor Minneapolis students are 75 percent non-white, putting them at greater risk, according to data collected by The Minneapolis Foundation for their One Minneapolis report released this fall.  A good reader does better in school.

Not all children are lucky enough to be born into homes with lots of books and a love of reading, whether because of poverty or literacy issues or language differences that limit access to books.      

"The earlier we start this, the better," explains Laurel Wills, Reach Out and Read's medical director and a mom who fondly remembers reading bedtime stories to her own three daughters. In fact, that memory got her hooked on the state program, which distributes 95,000 books annually, though more are needed.

And as a physician she knows that children's brains develop by leaps and bounds between birth and 3. Those are serious learning years.

Currently, one of four low-income children in Minnesota under age 6 participates in the program but more than 15 percent of the state's youngsters live in poverty.

Among those participating are Patricia Almaraz of Minneapolis, who works part time as a janitor, and her four children, ages 2 to 9.

“We have a box we call ‘our library,’’’ she says of their home collection of 40 children’s books, both new and gently used, some given to them by their primary doctor and others by their parents. “Reading to kids you see the results when they start school,’’ she says proudly talking of her third-grader Roberto’s success in school. After coming to the United States from Mexico about 12 years ago, Almaraz finished her high school education here and plans to go on to post-secondary. 

Gathering on Friday
Supporters of the school-readiness effort will gather Friday, Nov. 18, for a "Green Eggs and Ham" Breakfast Event to raise funds and to hear a reading of the Dr. Seuss story book classic read by actor Isabell Monk O'Connor and early childhood education advocate and economist Arthur J. Rolnick, senior fellow at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute. Get details here.   

Wills describes how the program, which is national and endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, has Minnesota physicians, nurses and other health professionals putting those hard cardboard "baby-board" books into the chubby little hands of youngun's as little as six-months old and then at regular well-baby checkups through the years. Some clinics offer books in Spanish and other languages as well as English.

Handing a child a book serves child development purposes as well, says Wills, a pediatrician on staff at Gillette Children's Hospital in St. Paul.  

When she offers a 15-month-old child in her examining room a book she purposefully turns it upside down to see how the child reacts. "I'm watching for the toddler to turn the book right side up. A 12-month old baby should be pointing to pictures in the book, looking at mom and dad. A 2-year-old will be putting two words together," she says.

In contrast, a child who doesn't show curiosity in a book or make eye contact with his or her caregiver when given a book may be exhibiting signs of autism, a developmental disorder, she says.

Studies support the beneficial effects of reading to children. Children who get books at their doctor's offices "are as much as six months ahead with receptive and expressive vocabulary compared to kids not getting the same exposure," Wills says.

She says parents are much more likely to read to their children if they can say, "My doctor says I should do this. This is good for my baby's brain development." 

And that's not even factoring in the emotional benefits of child and parent bonding over a good book. Well I remember nestling in my mother's lap in an over-stuffed rocking chair listening to her read to me.    

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