Nearly 2, Scarlett climbs down from her dad's lap at the kitchen table where kids' books, paper and glue sticks are splayed and her aunts and uncles are in a vigorous discussion about work, politics and good reads. She's on the move after turning the pages of "Pete the Cat," a toddling vagabond whose interest has shifted from exploring the characters in a book to exploring the kitchen. She's like most toddlers, instinctually eager to soak up her surroundings once she becomes mobile. Even the newly minted crawling baby is a kind of research rover, on hands and knees, gathering data within reach, from the stubble on Dad's beard to the soccer ball on the grass to the violet peeping up along the sidewalk.
And how Dad looks at and interacts with the world around him, and the language he uses while engaging his child, is relevant to his child's first learning experiences.
My son returns his 2-year-old's wave as she toddles away. She blows a kiss to her dad, setting off a boomerang of waves and kisses in return from her adult family members.
The thing is, everything is a learning experience when it comes to a young child, right down to how we say goodbye or show our love and respect. Recent research published in Web of Science supports the idea "... that father engagement has significant effects on children's cognition and language at 24 and 36 months and their social and emotional development at 24, 36 months, and pre-kindergarten." The study concludes: "These findings suggest that programs that aim at increasing fathers' education and that promote and encourage fathers' positive parenting will yield large benefits for children."
So whenever dad sits down to read a book for his own pleasure, his kids benefit, too. (Note to self: Pick up the new Tom Clancy for my son.)
After much attention on moms and their valuable role, researchers are finally focusing on the equally important role that dads play in a child's learning and language development. The research is showing that dads who read and care about learning positively impact their young children's language and cognitive development before a child even enters the classroom, the result of which means earlier leaps of learning and better preparedness for school and social settings.
This is good news for dads and their kids.
When Scarlett turns her head to say "bye-bye" to her daddy, a father of two, she heads with confidence to the voices coming from the living room, where her brother, Collin, and two cousins, Robert and Steven, are playing video games. Whether she realizes it or not, this little girl is on a mission to gather information between the two rooms of familial interaction, and it appears she is about to discover something new.
The really cool piece is that we know that a child's experiences and the language a child hears is forever archived in that child's memory, acting as a database for future processing and learning. An infant's brain doubles in size in the first year, and this tells us that learning is rapid and cumulative. The fuller the language library and the freer the experience, the more information a child will have as a resource to make sense of feelings and facts as they come, and to navigate situations and engage with the people in her life.
And that learning compounds. Each time dad engages with his child to read a book together, and each time he encourages a nonintrusive style of discovery led by the curiosity of his child, he fosters growth in his child the same way a garden grows when it's given rich soil, sunlight and clean water.
Dads who nurture their child's natural penchant for discovering, both through story books and looking hands-on at the surrounding world, will give their child a head-start when it comes to language and cognitive development. Dad's vocabulary and his willingness to encourage his child's hands-on learning, alongside mom's, will determine how many words and experiences with which a kindergartner will enter school on his or her first day. It's this kind of foundation that sets up a lifetime of love for learning.
Toting an open package of Goldfish crackers, Scarlett's hair a bit fly-away as toddlers would have it, she spies something by the pantry near the counter that serves as coffee station and command center. She stops to points it out the way someone who has found an answer does.
"Go ahead," my sonsays to his daughter.
Seizing the tiny footstool tucked there — adding a cheerful "dada!" — she takes control of the moment and pushes the tiny piece of furniture through the doorway and into the central location of the hall. What is she up to? Soon, she plants herself on top, giving her a "seat" at both tables of interaction, so to speak. At first blush, one might think the newest apple of our eye was behaving in such a way that was simply entertaining, and you would be right. But there was more: She'd scoped out a room of her own, one that allowed her to see and hear the adults in conversation in the kitchen and the kids at play in the living room. A seat that was just the right size for her little legs.
Dad trusted she was doing something that mattered and she trusted that Dad was close by if she needed him. He let her discover this on her own. It said Daddy believed in her. It said she had the freedom to explore and learn that a footstool had more that one use, and that experience of discovery was helping to feed her knowledge, her skill and her self-esteem.
With her central spot at her new post, she took in the dual activities of a household of family members. She comfortably planted her feet on the floor, pulling a solitary Goldfish from the single serve package labeled with smiling fish, chirping "hi!" when I catch her eye.
She's on top of her learning game.
Kudos to all the dads out there who understand the importance of not only being there for and engaging in warm and calm ways with their children, but who also understand the importance of reading paired with opportunities for free play and discovery. Even more exciting, the research indicates that when dads make these things matter, there are not only emotional and social pluses, but cognitive benefits for his child as well.
If you're a dad and you're thinking all that reading and playful discovery is just for fun, think again, because your infant, toddler and young child is getting ready all along for what lies ahead, and that can give your child a serious boost when it comes to overall learning.
So props to old pops who get it. And for that special new dad in your life, wish him a very Happy Father's Day from me and encourage him to check out the National Institutes for Literacy website where he can put his feet up and dive into "Dad's Playbook: Coaching Kids to Read" (https://lincs.ed.gov/publications/pdf/Dads_Playbook.pdf.)
Because a father's words and deeds matter a lot when it comes to his child's learning, and that's the best gift of all.
Bonnie J. Toomey teaches at Plymouth State University, writes about writing, learning and life in the 21st century. You can follow Parent Forward on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bonniejtoomey. Learn more at www.parentforward.blogspot.com or visit bonniejtoomey.com.