05 Mar Putting the book back into World Book Day – why reading is so good for you
Former PM David Cameron was filmed asking his son about his, many parents stay up all night perfecting them, fancy dress shops advertise them, and schools organise parades of them… But is World Book Day becoming more about the costumes and less about the books? And if so, is there a risk that we might lose sight of what the day was originally intended to celebrate?
Of course, kids love dressing up, and no one is suggesting that this fun element of the day should be stopped. Yet prioritising the costumes over the books can place additional pressure on parents who may already be short of time and money. After all, the clue is in the name. It’s World Book Day, not World Fancy Dress Day.
Let’s remember why the day is marked in the first place. UNESCO says the idea in the UK and Ireland is to “encourage children to explore the pleasures of books and reading by providing them with the opportunity to have a book of their own”.
According to the National Literacy Trust, 9% of children and young people claim not to own a single book of their own at home, a figure that hasn’t changed for a year. Sadly, this figure dips to one in eight for pupils in receipt of free school meals.
Yet the benefits of reading are strongly backed by science, as highlighted in an article that I shared recently on The Learning Cauldron’s Facebook page. Here’s a gist of what the article revealed:
- Stress reduction
Researchers at Sussex University have found that when it comes to stress-busting, getting between the covers of a book beats relaxing with music or even going for a walk. In tests, heart rates slowed and muscle tension eased significantly after participants had read for six minutes.
- Better quality shut-eye
Particularly if you read fiction last thing at night, you help release the stresses of the day and engage the imagination. You’re likely to sleep better as a result, especially if it’s part of your bedtime routine. Scientists have proven that reading sends a great signal to your body that it’s time to rest, and we’re regularly warned that white light from screens can be disastrous as far as a decent night’s slumber is concerned.
- Keeping your mind sharp
Neuroscientists have found that reading stimulates the brain’s neural networks, improving social cognition and the way we process abstract content, so it’s great for our cognitive skills too.
Research also shows that regular readers experience slower decline in memory later on in life. And while this won’t be so much of a concern to younger readers, the activity may keep the brain alert enough to halt the cognitive decline linked to a number of diseases associated with earlier mortality, says Avni Bavishi at America’s Northwestern University.
- A sense of belonging
Buffalo University’s Dr Melanie Green states: “Stories allow us to feel connected with others and part of something bigger than ourselves.” And while reading is necessarily a solitary activity, with online and real book groups and libraries, there can be a genuine feeling of community.
- Reimagine who you want to be
To read is to see the world from a fresh viewpoint. A study in the Annual Review of Psychology found that when people read about an experience, the same neurological regions are stimulated as if they were going through it themselves. So reading is an incredible way to try out someone else’s life experiences for a while.
From all the above, it’s clear that reading is certainly physically good for you. Perhaps that’s partly why in Holland they marked book week not by dressing up as characters from books but rather by granting free rail travel across the land to passengers who presented a copy of a novel specially written for the event, instead of presenting a ticket.
Yet we shouldn’t ignore that dressing up as a favourite character from a book does encourage youngsters to thinking about that character, which is a first step along the road to writing about characterisation in a critical essay in the National 5 or Higher English exam. The key is to enter into the spirit by dressing up, but be creative in the way you do so – in other words DON’T pay a fortune for a costume that will probably only be worn once OR waste precious sleep hours perfecting a jaunty, pea-green Peter Pan hat… Keep the costumes simple this year – and spend any money you save on books!