Grandfathers engage in a baby book battle

Are there wrong and right books to read to babies? A public service announcement produced by fellows of the Learning Science Exchange Fellowship offers interesting answers. The two year fellowship program brings 12 participants from science, journalism, entertainment and policy together to learn from each other and to collaborate on a joint project. All three projects are being featured in the Jacobs Foundation Newsletter, starting with “Read the Right Books at the Right Time”. 

Disseminating research-based information about child development requires a multi-pronged and strategic communication approach. Research shows that naming characters in infants’ books promotes learning in the first year of life. We created a public service announcement (PSA) to communicate to parents and caregivers to read early and often and to “Read the Right Books at the Right Time.” Our strategic approach incorporates expertise from scientific studies of infant development, communicating science through entertainment and journalism, and promoting policies that support families and children.

Research: Scientific Studies of Infant Development. Parents and caregivers support infant development in a variety of ways including during shared book reading. Shared book reading has broad developmental benefits for child development. But are we reading our infants the right books at the right time? Previous research suggests that 6- to 9-month-old infants exhibit increased attention and learning and show more specialized brain responses after parents read them books with individual names for characters (e.g., “Mr. Wigglesworth”). Books with characters who are named generically (e.g., “elephant”) or not named do not increase learning in infants under 9 months. Communicating this research-based message to caregivers not only encourages naming during reading, but fosters a culture of book reading in the home that can be incorporated into family routines and builds quality parent-infant relationships, later language development, and emergent literacy.

Communicating Science though Entertainment: We created a public service announcement or PSA that communicates the research showing that reading the right books at the right time – in this case, books with named characters — is critical to early development. Our goal was to design a message and create characters that appealed to a diverse range of everyday families. We focused on a humorous multiracial family – starring two grandpas who co-babysit their granddaughter. The grandfathers engage in a baby book battle to win the affection of their granddaughter. One grandpa believes it is important to dynamically and loudly entertain babies while the other believes you have to stir their mind and emotions by reading them excerpts from novels. The unexpected return of the baby’s parents allows them to intervene in the battle, and correct the grandpas: For babies under 9 months, it is important to read storybooks and name characters. Our long-term goal is to widely disseminate the science of early child development and transform “2 Grandpas, 1 Baby” into a series of PSAs and a sitcom focused on delivering one scientific message per episode about early child development.

Mom and Baby from “2 Grandpas, 1 Baby”

Communicating Science through Journalism: At heart, science journalists must communicate complex issues as clearly and directly as possible. Yet the power of narrative or stories to hook our readers squares with communications research showing that fiction, humor and other less direct communications tools can be as, if not more, effective at delivering scientific messages to lay audiences. Hence, we developed a PSA.

Promoting Policies that Support Families and Children: Creating social policies that affect much of the population requires a foundation of public will that can be fostered – as through PSAs. Our PSA helps caregivers learn more about books that increase learning in infants under a year of age as well as implicitly showing that reading to children is important. And beneath that is the importance of engaging children in meaningful ways during their first months and years of life. These underlying messages generate an awareness of how critical the first years of life are and begin to build the public will for policies that support families and children’s development. From a public policy standpoint, we work to develop policies that support caregivers in providing the care, education, and environment children need to thrive.

LSX is an interdisciplinary two-year fellowship focused on child development (ages 0-5) designed to break through traditional silos that separate learning scientists from those in journalism, education policy, and entertainment. Over two years, fellows will collaborate on projects that elevate the insights of the learning sciences for new audiences. The intent is to learn how to communicate with the public, write op-eds in teams, and advance a project related to early childhood development that would be strengthened with the infusion of ideas from talented people in other sectors. The fellowship is administered by New America, the International Congress of Infant Studies, and the Jacobs Foundation.