Program cultivates early literacy

Stories: "Babies in Bloom" sessions at Arundel libraries introduce toddlers to the pleasures of reading.

April 22, 2001|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

The audience is far from rapt, despite storyteller Ann Fleer's unending supply of catchy songs and rhyming tales, hand puppets and oversized props.

There are tears and whining and general fidgeting. A few mesmerized souls wander slowly toward the soothing sound of Fleer's voice, and a cluster is planted on the floor, counting and clapping with little regard for the rhythm.

"This is not a quiet storytime, as you gathered," whispers Laura Lieberman, one of the library associates at the Annapolis Library on West Street.

What makes this event unusual is the crowd. Called "Babies in Bloom," the sessions here and at 14 other branches of the Anne Arundel County Public Library are aimed at children from birth to 24 months, infancy to the cusp of the terrible twos.

It's part of a growing effort, rooted in brain research, to help children fall in love with books and language as early as possible.

"Language is the precursor to reading, and the earlier the children develop language, the earlier they'll be interested in learning to read," Lieberman says.

"Babies in Bloom" was inspired by a statewide initiative called Ready at Five, a coalition of public and private organizations working to ensure that children are ready to learn when they enter school. The coalition has worked with library systems throughout Maryland to survey programs offered for children from birth to kindergarten.

Meanwhile, libraries statewide are taking part in a campaign sponsored by the Maryland State Department of Education, called "It's Never Too Early," to encourage parents and caregivers to read more often to children.

Last year, Baltimore County's public libraries - using a $59,000 state grant - launched their version of an early storytime program, called "Baby Boosters." They also are reaching out to community organizations to put books into more tiny hands, and to promote the importance of creating readers at an age when chewing on the pages is sometimes more compelling than turning them.

Anne Arundel County's library system started its program in January. At the Annapolis branch, the storytimes have been such big draws that officials are considering doubling or tripling the number of sessions per month.

The program attracts a lot of stay-at-home mothers, but the goal is to encourage reading aloud by parents who might not think to expose their children to books at such an early age, said Andrea D. Lewis, spokeswoman for the library system.

On a recent Thursday morning, the community room at the Annapolis branch was packed with babies and their mothers, a few grandparents and a father.

Fleer started with a hand puppet and a song to the tune of "Frere Jacques," then sent book pages rich in texture around the room. She followed that with a story of a frog and a lily pad - complete with a stuffed frog and a fabric lily pad - then "Itsy-Bitsy Spider."

In 15 minutes, Fleer had whipped through her repertoire (45 minutes' worth of material, she would groan later) and had brought out inflatable beach balls, which she tossed to those who could stand. Some bounced balls back, others bounced them around the room. She then brought out the books - piles and piles of them.

Amy Banko's daughter Emma, 4 1/2 months old, grabbed a book called "Pajama Time." She couldn't really hold the book by herself, but that was OK. Emma is not exactly a novice reader: Banko started reading to her before Emma was born.

"She seems interested in the books," Banko said. "She helps turn the pages. She is aware of the pictures and the colors and the books. Hopefully, it's an activity she'll enjoy as she gets older, so it's something she looks forward to and not something she dreads."

Ilona Picou and her husband Jelpi brought their son Luc, also 4 1/2 months old, so he could hear the other voices. Jelpi read to his son when the child was in the womb. "When [Luc] came out, he totally recognized his [father's] voice right away," Ilona says. "That was the coolest thing."

Luc, she said, "has a huge library at home. We collect books more than toys."

"Babies in Bloom" gives parents a chance to get together and talk about the one book they lack - the instruction manual that didn't accompany their children. "Parents today don't have the family to rely on," Lieberman said.

Participating public libraries have a secondary motive. They hope that by drawing parents and their infants to the library, all will gain a better understanding of what the library has to offer.

"We let people know the library is a place for children," said Hillary L. Doherty, the family literacy project coordinator for Baltimore County's public libraries. "It creates a love of reading. Research shows the earlier you read to a child, the more likely they are to become lifelong readers. It gets them used to books so when they get to school, they're not foreign objects to them."

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