How did you first experience the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears? Was it during storytime in preschool? A cartoon on the TV? Or was it when you read the picture book yourself? No matter how you first learned of the picky girl that needed everything “just right,” you probably weren’t thinking about how your brain was functioning while you did. Luckily, that’s exactly what researcher Dr. John Hutton from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital did when he studied a group of about 30 children and how their brains reacted to different forms of storytelling. His findings were shockingly similar to that of Goldilocks and found that picture books are “just right” for young children.
Dr. Hutton imagined three ways in which young children—those around age four—could be exposed to stories. The first way was the traditional read-aloud situation in which the child does not actually view the picture book, but hears the words read aloud to them. The second scenario was the act of hearing the story while also being able to look at the picture book itself. The last way was simply viewing an animated version of the story, replicating a cartoon. He wanted to know how the children’s brains reacted when they were exposed to these different forms of the same story.
Hutton studied the activity in certain brain regions related to audio, language, and visual ability along with the connection between these different areas as the children were exposed to each of the three methods. His findings can be described as having a “Goldilocks effect” in the sense that the audio-only method was “too cold” while the cartoon was “too hot” for the young subjects’ brains. In the audio-only instance, the language regions were active but had low connectivity, suggesting that the children were struggling to understand and visualize the story simultaneously. On the contrary, the cartoon stimulated the audio and visual areas, but had low connectivity with the language region, resulting in the worst comprehension. This meant that children were actually overstimulated in the audio-visual areas to the extent that the language region could not keep up. The sweet spot was the illustrated version with the audio voiceover. This method provided the children with a nice balance between the networks and the pictures provided just enough imagery for the children’s imagination kick in, allowing the language region to keep up.
Sharing is Caring
These findings reinforce the idea of sharing a book with your young child as a parent. Note that “sharing” a book with your child is much different than simply reading it out loud to them. Sharing goes beyond the words in the book and involves an interactive experience for the child in which the parent is encouraged to stop frequently to discuss characters, themes, and interesting passages. Prior to Hutton’s studies, performing this type of reading with toddlers was already seen to improve cognitive and language skills, while also increasing the young child’s vocabulary, pre-reading ability, and conceptual development. By understanding picture books as the best way to engage children, parents should pass up the cartoons and read-aloud time for a nice picture book to share.