Perhaps the most obvious way a children’s book can have developmental value for a child is by its ability to educate about a certain topic. As the child reads the book, she learns something via the content of the book. In this post I will discuss the place of educational themes in rendering a children’s book developmentally valuable, and I will offer some advice on choosing children’s educational books. Educational themes might be understood as a complement to attractive themes, which contribute to the subjective appeal of a children’s book.
This post is part of a continuing series on how to choose children’s books. To read the series from the beginning, click here for “How to Choose Children’s Books”. For the prior article in the series, “Stories of Virtue: Character Building Stories,” click here.
Children’s Educational Books: Importance of Developmental Stage
There is no mystery to how children’s educational books can contribute to a child’s development: books with educational themes simply help a child learn something she didn’t know about before. The key, then, to choosing children’s books with educational themes is to make sure the themes of the book fit with the child’s stage of cognitive, physical, and emotional development.
For example, children in the infants and toddlers age category (roughly up to three years old) are generally learning basic concepts, acquiring language, learning to recognize objects in the world, and learning to control their bodies in basic ways. So, books featuring letters (e.g., Dr. Seuss’s ABC: An Amazing Alphabet Book!), colors, and numbers are obviously appropriate and beneficial. As I suggested in my review of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, one reason Eric Carle’s classic book is so good is that it exposes children to numbers, the biology of caterpillars and butterflies, and to basic objects (e.g., the sun, leaves, food items, etc.). These elements are educational for young children. Potty training (e.g., Once Upon a Potty) is another example of a theme that would be educational, and so developmentally valuable, for very young children.
Children in the three-to-five-years category are learning to do more things for themselves, are continuing to gain understanding of the how the world works, are working on mastery of their emotions, and are beginning to navigate relationships with parents, siblings, and friends. Thus, educational themes might include doing things “by myself” (e.g., Hey, Little Baby!), going to the zoo (e.g., When We Went to the Zoo), getting angry (e.g., When Sophie Gets Angry…Really, Really Angry), or friendship (e.g., Frog and Toad Are Friends).
For children in the six-to-eight-years category educational themes might include relationships at school (e.g., Chrysanthemum), pets (e.g., Comet’s Nine Lives), moral character (e.g., Aesop’s Fables), and family relationships (Sylvester and the Magic Pebble). For this age category, books like Martin’s Big Words and The Incredible Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau are picture book biographies that might open children to learning about historical figures (Martin Luther King Jr. and Jacques Cousteau), justice, and the ocean. A book like The Grapes Of Math can be a fun way for six-to-eight-year-olds to learn some math, while a book like Petook: An Easter Story might spur valuable religious learning.
Educational themes for children in the nine-to-twelve-years category might include friendships (e.g., When You Reach Me), conflicts between good and evil (e.g., the Harry Potter series), and finding one’s place in the world (e.g., The Invention of Hugo Cabret). Teens are ready to learn from books with the widest range of themes yet, including romantic relationships, the complex ethical issues of war (e.g., The Hunger Games), and various historical, geographic, and scientific themes.
These lists of educational themes are just a start, of course, and should not be taken as exhaustive. The main point is that choosing children’s educational books will require one to be attentive to the developmental stage of the child for whom the book is being chosen.
Fiction and Subjective Appeal
Notice that any of the themes I have mentioned might be found in fiction or non-fiction children’s books. It is obvious that non-fiction books can be educational in this way: they are often singly focused on educating a reader about something—e.g., a period of history, the culture of a certain country, or an archeological discovery. However, fiction can also educate: I’ve recently been reading Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos, by R.L. LaFevers, which wraps a certain amount of history (both ancient and modern), culture (Egyptian and British), and archeology into an interesting story. Other examples include the Magic Tree House series, and The Magic School Bus series, which use fiction to educate about history and science, respectively. Indeed, educational themes wrapped in a fictional package can make learning very attractive to children, since we all love a good story.
This last point about fiction and educational themes suggests something very important about choosing children’s educational books: a book must also be interesting to the child. If the child is not interested in reading it, or having it read to her, then no matter what the themes are, the book will not be developmentally valuable. She has to read the book if she is going to learn anything! So, it is very important to choose books with themes that are not only developmentally appropriate, but also interesting to the child. I have written on the topic of subjectively appealing themes in a prior post. For further ideas on children’s books with educational themes, Scholastic.com publishes many great children’s educational books.
In the next post in this series I will suggest certain kinds of books to avoid when choosing children’s books.
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