Grandparents have to be careful. Not everyone is as interested in their grandchildren as they are. Cute grandchild pictures and instances of clever grandchild behavior must be shared sparingly. Earlier this year, during a telephone conversation with Dr. Carroll Smith, I mentioned that I was in Arizona spending some time with my granddaughter Ada. I told him how attentive she was to particular stories and books, some of which to me seemed challenging for a two-year old, and that I had been thinking about why this might be the case. Being the good friend that he is, Carroll – rather than moving the conversation on to the business at hand – said he would like to hear more about my thoughts and ideas concerning Ada’s literary development. His interest focused my observations and reflections; since then I have been attentive each time I have had an opportunity to read to and play with Ada. Here are my current thoughts.
At the time of my aforementioned conversation with Carroll, one of Ada’s favorite naptime and bedtime stories was the heffalump chapter from Winnie-the-Pooh. Ada’s mother has small versions of the individual chapters, all of which are stand-alone stories. At naptime on the first day of my visit, Ada wanted me to read chapter five “In Which Piglet Meets a Heffalump.” I was doubtful about her ability to understand the details of the story, so I skipped, summarized, and hurried my way through the reading. Over the next few days, I came to realize that Ada could and would patiently listen to every word on every page of the little book. Ada seemed to know that a heffalump is an elephant. (0f course, the book’s illustrations show that this is true, but Ada listened more than she looked while I was reading.) Obviously, her parents had read this story to her many times; she seemed to want to hear it over and over because of the pleasure this gave her. Her usual busy self became quiet and thoughtful. (And then sleepy.)
Once I began to pay more attention to the story, I realized that some objects, words, and events in the chapter were familiar to Ada because they were part of her daily experience: for example, objects like a jar of honey and actions like reaching into a cupboard. I do not know if Ada has seen an actual live elephant, but zoo animals are a common theme in toddler picture books. In Ada’s mind, the heffalump story related to other books as well as to everyday experiences and vocabulary used in daily conversation. Later, on the playground, Ada pretended parts of the story; she dug a pit into the cedar mulch so she could catch a heffalump. While she played, she talked about what she was doing, often to herself, but also to others who might be able and willing to play another part in the enactment. For instance, if Ada was pretending the part of Pooh, she would ask me to “talk” Piglet. This put me in mind of Dr. Jennifer Spencer’s Theory of Personal Integration, which describes how ideas resonate with a learner, and in the early stages are “processed . . . mainly through play and language” (2014, p. 217), until they become an integral part of the person.
Dr. Spencer’s theory correlates with the work of James N. Britton, a British educator and professor at the University of London whose writings were published in the latter half of the 20th century. Britton provided examples of conversations he had with his daughters and granddaughters to support his ideas about language, learning, and literature. In his book Literature in Its Place (1993), Britton pointed out that very young children are able to communicate with adults even before they have speech. “And then, in the course of months, the interchange of meanings becomes possible, all in enacted make-believe play” (Britton, 1993, p. 81). This acting-out-the-meaning play, according to Britton, develops before a child is able to verbally narrate meaning (Britton, 1993, p.13). When adults respond favorably to a child’s “enactive, imaginative mode of speech” . . . they are finding “a way of sharing their lifespace and the role that language plays in their early experience” (Britton, 1993, p. 82).
Charlotte Mason also teaches us about the importance of imaginative play and admonishes us to refrain from asking young children to verbally narrate. In Home Education we read, “Until he is six, let Bobbie narrate only when and what he has a mind to. He must not be called upon to tell anything” (1989, p. 231), and in School Education (1989):
There is a little danger in these days of much educational effort that children’s play should be crowded out, or, what is from our present point of view the same thing, should be prescribed for and arranged until there is no more freedom of choice about play . . . . Boys and girls must have time to invent episodes, carry on adventures, live heroic lives, lay siege and carry forts, even if the fortress be an old armchair; and in these affairs the elders must neither meddle nor make. They must be content to know that they do not understand, and, what is more, that they carry with them a chill breath of reality which sweeps away illusions . . . ; he who is most played with by his elders has little power of inventing plays for himself; and so he misses that education which comes to him when allowed to go his own way. . . . (pp. 36-37)
(I just have to say here, that grandparents are pretty good at participating without meddling when invited into imaginary play.)
There is really no accounting for some of the books Ada takes an interest in and asks to have reread constantly. In midsummer, her favorite library book was Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas. So much so that her mother ordered her her own copy. During my visit to Arizona in August, this is the book I read over and over. During that visit we also read a version of The Three Billy Goats Gruff and one of Ada’s mother’s childhood books, The Silver Slippers. As I write, two of Ada’s current favorites are Stars Wars A, B, C and Star Wars 1, 2, 3.
While some of the stories Ada likes may not precisely meet the definition of a living book, her related play and talk allow her to process and integrate new concepts and vocabulary. The Silver Slippers includes the following words and phrases which do not often occur in a child’s everyday conversation: inspired, frequently discouraged, recital, cushion, glistened, strains of music, prima ballerina, aglow. When the Grinch is trying to decide how to stop Christmas, he drums his fingers on a big boulder in the entrance of his cave. Every time I read this book to Ada in August, I stopped and drummed my fingers on the page. Soon Ada tried; she could not exactly drum her fingers so instead tapped them in unison. Weeks later, when I was once again visiting in Arizona, The Grinch was still a favorite, so I read itat naptime. Before I realized I was about to turn to the finger-drumming page, Ada surprised me by starting to tap her fingers. And, on a recent visit to South Dakota, Ada’s favorite activity was playing “Three Billy Goats Gruff” with her grandfather in the “park with the bridge.” When they needed a break from playing, Ada and Grandpawatched an animated version of Charlotte’s Web on VHS. Over the course of ten days they viewed it twice; she was entranced both times and later talked accurately about the story. Ada now has plans for a Wilbur the Pig costume for Halloween. It looks like baby sister is probably going to have to be Charlotte!
Ada’s voluntary play and enactments from stories strengthen the relationship between the spoken word and its meaning and provide a basis for communication between child and observant, caring adult. It is a blessing to share literary experiences with one’s children, grandchildren, and students. James Britton points out that early imagined childhood experiences flow directly into later imagined experiences represented in literature – living books that help us understand and tell our stories to ourselves and others. I believe that Ada’s continuous exposure to stories; the encouragement she is being given to use her senses to explore her world, to play, and use her imagination; and the talk that naturally occurs around her experiences are allowing her to see and build relationships that support the multiple facets of the development of her unique personhood.
Britton, J. N. (1993). Literature in its place. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers, Inc.
Mason, C. M. (1989). Home education. Wheaton IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. (Original work published 1925)
Mason, C. M. (1989). School education. Wheaton IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. (Original work published 1925)
Spencer, J. C. (2014). Getting personal: The theory of personal integration. In J. Carroll Smith (Ed.). Essays on the life and work of Charlotte Mason (pp. 211-238). Roanoke, VA: The Charlotte Mason Institute.
© 2014 by Donna Johnson, EdD