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Reading Program Reaches Out to Military Families

By Rob McIlvaine
Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 9, 2009 – Anyone from the Saturday morning cartoon generation knows that “reading is fundamental.” Now, young military children will get their own version of that message through Reach Out and Read’s new military pilot program.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Air Force Capt. (Dr.) Minh-Thu Le interacts with her patient, 8-month-old Alexander, as he performs the common newborn ritual of “mouthing the book.” Alexander’s parents, Air Force 1st Lt. Alice L. Shepard and her husband, Steven, happily look on at Travis Air Force Base, Calif. U.S. Air Force photo by James Spellman Jr.
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Through the program’s military initiative, doctors and nurses at 20 military hospitals, including one in Germany, soon will receive training on how to promote early literacy for children. They also will be provided with free books to present to parents with children ages 6 months to 5 years when they bring their children in for wellness checkups.

“Reading aloud to a young child every day is a wonderful way to stimulate language,” said Dr. Perri Klass, medical director of Reach Out and Read. “It helps children love books and reading, because they associate books with the parent’s voice and with the pleasures of listening.

“That’s the advice military doctors and nurses will be giving to the parents of their young patients at every checkup -- important advice for all parents to help their children learn language and enjoy books,” she added.

Reading aloud not only helps children feel secure and loved, but also can help families face stressful situations, Klass said. That’s especially true of military families, who often face deployment.

“I love to read and hope to instill a love of reading,” said Air Force 1st Lt. Alice L. Shepard, a clinical pediatric nurse at Travis Air Force Base, Calif., and mother to an 8-month-old son. “Even before he was born we read to him, and some of the first things I bought when making his nursery were books.”

Shepard, who is scheduled to deploy next year, said she is glad to know that in addition to Reach Out and Read’s wide selection of “doctor-recommended” children’s books, some titles have been chosen especially for military children. One, “While You Were Away,” by Eileen Spinelli, was very comforting, she said.

“I read Spinelli’s book and found it very touching. It brought tears to my eyes, because it was so accurate,” Shpard said. “As a mother of a very young child, I worry that he will not remember who I am when I return. I think this book could give him a sense of what I am doing over there.”

State coalition groups will visit the 20 hospitals to train doctors on how to counsel parents about the benefits of reading to their children, said Barbara Christine, program manager for Library Programs at the Army Family and Morale Welfare and Recreation Command.

Because Reach Out and Read has already researched the age-appropriateness of each book, the training is more about what interaction with a book is developmentally appropriate for each age group, Air Force Capt. (Dr.) Minh-Thu Le, a physician at Travis Air Force Base, explained.

“I … encourage parents to try and not dictate how a child interacts with a book,” Le said. “Not every child will sit still for you to be able to read a book cover to cover. A 6-month-old will be more interested in mouthing the book, which is appropriate. A 12-month-old may flip each page quickly before you can even tell them what is on the page. Let the child dictate how you read to them.”

Reach Out and Read could have another significant impact on the more than 90,000 young military children it will reach worldwide.

“Kids love books and usually hate going to the doctor’s office,” Le said. “Hopefully, this program will enable them to associate coming here as a fun outing, as well as having the book remind them and their parents [of] the importance of getting their wellness visits done.”

As a way of reinforcing everything the Reach Out and Read program is promoting, participating military bases also will create literacy-rich waiting rooms. These will come complete with child-size furniture and book cases, where Reach Out and Read-trained volunteers will model reading with the children while they wait for appointments.

Each child who participates in the Reach Out and Read program also will start kindergarten with a home library of up to seven books and the support of parents who understand the importance of reading.

Reach Out and Read was founded in 1989 at what is now Boston Medical Center. “Nurtured by the passionate and inspired efforts of many educators, doctors, volunteers, parents, corporations, foundations and politicians, ROR has grown significantly from merely providing books in pediatric waiting rooms, said Dr. Robert Needleman, the program’s co-founder.

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