When the little ones are all comfy in their pyjamas, snuggled in their duvet, and excited for their parent to read them a story, their brains are doing much more than simply dozing off.
In fact, these moments of shared reading unclench the firing of an immense number of neurons, making new connections and strengthening existing ones.
There are innumerable studies that delve into all the benefit this activity has for the child. Amongst the most relevant ones are those conducted by Dr. Horowitz-Kraus and Dr. Hutton, pediatricians at Cincinnati’s Children’s Hospital.
In a collaboration with other experts, they found that children who are more exposed to reading environments at home develop larger neural circuits that support narrative comprehension, which in turn facilitates learning to read and write (Hutton, Horowitz-Kraus, Mendelsohn, DeWitt, Holland, 2015).
This is a clear case of biological embedding, a process in which the brain undergoes long-term physical changes in response to cognitive stimulation during early childhood. Shared reading is so influential for the child that even modest increases of the activity are associated with improved brain function in the areas supporting literacy (Hutton, Phelan, Horowitz-Kraus, Dudley, Altaye, et al., 2017).
The cerebellum, which is one of these areas and is located right at the nape, was proven to play a substantial role in the matter. According to Hutton et al., the more engaged the child is during shared reading the more they will use the cerebellum, which “turbocharges” the connections between neurons to make them better, faster and stronger (2017). This “cerebellar boost” enhances cognitive and social-emotional processing, which in turn makes the activity more rewarding for the child.
In the same study, they also found that other aspects of the child’s development were affected by shared reading. They showed that, for example, children that are encouraged to engage reciprocally with the reader, in the form of questions and exchange of opinions, can form stronger social-emotional connections between stories and their own life.
Hutton, J., Phelan, K., Horowitz-Kraus, T., Dudley, J., Altaye, M., DeWitt, T., and Holland, S. (2017). Story time turbocharger? Child engagement during shared reading and cerebellar activation and connectivity in preschool-age children listening to stories. PLoS ONE, 12(5).
Hutton, J., Horowitz-Kraus, T., Mendelsohn, A., DeWitt, T., Holland, T., the C-MIND Authorship Consortium, (2015). Home Reading Environment and Brain Activation in Preschool Children Listening to Stories. PEDIATRICS, 136(3).