3 Reasons to Read to Your Foster Child Every Single Day

I had a friend once describe running as one of the most efficient means of exercise there is. He pointed out that it requires no equipment (except a good pair of running shoes), no commute to the gym, burns a lot of calories, gets you a dose of vitamin D, can be done anytime, and gives you a great cardio workout. Like me, my friend does not particularly enjoy running, but he does enjoy being physically fit. So running is part of his regular routine.

What running is to physical fitness, reading is to child-rearing. Reading is one of the most efficient things we can do every day to contribute to our relationship with our children and help them flourish. This is true for every child, but it is especially important for those of us caring for children in foster care. Here’s why:

Reading aloud to a child contributes significantly to their language development, which is fundamental to most other areas of cognitive growth and mental health in a child. This is important for all children, but it is especially vital for children who have experienced early childhood neglect and a delay in language development. This study from the National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine notes that, “Neglect is the type of maltreatment most strongly associated with delays in expressive, receptive, and overall language development.” The study also finds that, “Children who are unable to communicate effectively may not have the necessary skills to negotiate or resolve conflict and may have difficulties understanding and relating to others. Psychiatric disorders such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, anxiety, depression, conduct disorder, and oppositional defiant disorder are highly associated with language impairment, and a combination of these problems may lead to poor social functioning as these individuals enter adulthood.”

According to Rhode Island’s Reach Out and Read, “Reading aloud is widely recognized as the single most important activity leading to language development. Among other things, reading aloud builds word-sound awareness in children, a potent predictor of reading success.” This is good news for those of us who parent children who experienced neglect early on. While they may have gotten a late start, reading aloud to them every day can have a repairing effect, essentially making up for lost language learning time.

Reading aloud fosters a child’s sense of imagination. From birth to about two years of age, children are learning about the world around them primarily through their senses: they want to touch and taste everything they can get their hands on (if you have ever worn glasses while holding a one-year-old, you know just what I mean!) But from age two to age seven or so, a child’s imagination is starting to grow. They begin to understand things symbolically and metaphorically, and listening to stories encourages this development (as does imaginative play).

Children who have experienced early childhood neglect often experience a stunted imagination. However, reading aloud daily can, once again, repair that deficit and fuel their imaginative brain function. Asking a child questions that help them reflect on the stories they are hearing actually helps to exercise their imagination and carve important neuropathways in their brains.

Reading aloud provides a great means of connection between a child and a caregiver. It is no surprise that children who have experienced broken attachments, meaning they have been separated from a primary caregiver (i.e. a parent), struggle to bond and attach with others. However, attachment is a vital part of emotional and mental development. Children learn how to have relationships through their attachments, they experience a sense of safety and security through attachment, and they learn emotional regulation through modeling after their caregivers. When those attachments are broken, the damage can be catastrophic, with life-long affects.

While there is no way to totally repair the devastation of attachment disruptions in children, reading to a new foster child is a simple and non-threatening way to bond with them. Sitting together on a couch and reading aloud to your foster child is a natural way to connect physically, mentally, and emotionally. Laughing together at something silly (such as Mo Willems’s Elephant and Piggie stories or any number of other good books for children) releases endorphins, which are considered the body’s natural “feel-good” chemicals. Endorphins promote an overall sense of well-being and can even temporarily relieve pain, making laughter truly good medicine.

Books can also provide a non-threatening way to address hard topics that are common for children in foster care. Books like The Night Dad Went to Jail, Tommy’s 2 Mommies, and Stellaluna allow children to talk about hard things they have experienced without talking about themselves. I have watched children in my care open up about the characters in these stories, when they would never offer to talk about their own experiences directly.

Reading aloud daily (or nightly at bedtime) also provides a wonderful opportunity for a child to exercise some personal autonomy. By inviting your child to choose a book (or two or three) each night, they get to experience a hit of power, which contributes tremendously to a child’s sense of personal agency and satisfaction.

Simply put, reading aloud to your foster child every day is one of the very best things you can do for them. If a child is with you for six months, and you read to them every day of their placement, that’s 168 opportunities to contribute to their language skills! If a child is with you for a year, and you read one book to them every day, that’s 365 chances to foster their imagination! And if a child comes to you at age seven and you read to them every night until they’re thirteen, that’s over two thousand excuses to sit and snuggle and bond with your child. And for the record, there is no reason to stop reading aloud to your children when they become teens. Reading aloud is something I love to do with my eldest daughter, who came to us when she was fifteen!

For more information and inspiration on reading aloud with your kids, including book recommendations for kids of all ages, check out the wonderful resources at Read Aloud Revival. And share your favorite books to read with your kids below!

Road Trip Tips for Traveling With Kids

My family just took our first “epic” road trip, driving from Seattle to Breckenridge, CO, for a family reunion. It was a great trip! Remarkably, we experienced no melt-downs and everyone seemed to have a really good time. More than that, we did a lot of singing, laughing, and connecting on the road. We made some really special memories during our three days of driving!

As I’ve been reflecting on what made the trip go so smoothly, there are a few things that I know made a huge difference. I recommend the following for any family traveling with small kids!

  1. Easy Does It With the Schedule. We allowed ourselves three days to cover about twenty-two hours of driving time. We certainly could have pushed it and done the whole trip in two days, but instead, we broke it up and allowed ourselves the luxury of stopping often for bathroom breaks and stretching our legs. And planking (see photo below).
  2. Motels/Hotels With Indoor Pools. We drove for three days, which meant we stopped for two nights in motels/hotels. I mapped about 7.5 hours of driving time each day and used Priceline a few days before we hit the road to find sweet deals on a Super 8 in La Grande, OR, and an Embassy Suites hotel in Salt Lake City, UT. Both hotels had indoor pools (important so you can guarantee swim time no matter the weather. This was great in SLC, where we arrived during a lightening storm!) and breakfast included with the room. For a family of five, that is a huge value! The kids got to look forward to swimming at the end of a long day in the car, and we made sure they got the all-important exertion needed to ensure sleep! NOTE: Always call ahead before booking to be sure the hotel’s pool is working. I learned that the hard way on a past trip, when we arrived and discovered the pool was undergoing maintenance. I won’t make that mistake again!
  3. Warm Fuzzies! I borrowed this from my daughter’s school as an incentive for my children to treat one another with kindness and keep whining and complaining to a minimum. Each child had a jar with his/her name on it. Every hour, on the hour, we did a “check-in.” If they used kind words, refrained from whining and were generally pleasant to one another and Mom and Dad, they got a “warm fuzzy” for their jar. At the end of our trip, each child got $.25 for every warm fuzzy in his/her jar. It worked SO WELL, and gave each of them some spending money for the trip. (Our two-and-a-half year old was less impressed by the money and more impressed by the colorful warm fuzzies in his jar!)
  4. Treat Bags. I asked my Vibrant Happy Women community for road trip tips, and this was one of the things shared with me. It took some planning ahead and a small investment, but it was worth every minute and every penny. About two weeks before the trip, I started visiting my favorite thrift stores (Goodwill, Value Village, a.k.a. Savers) and Dollar Tree, where I picked up small toys, clean crafts, sugarless gum, fruit snacks, and lolly pops. I bought brown paper lunch sacks and put one small treat in each bag, about twenty total per child.  I labeled three large gift bags per child and put all of the small sacks in the bag. Every hour, after we did our “warm fuzzy check-in,” I gave each child a sack to open. They LOVED this, and they knew they had something to look forward to each hour. Some hours rolled around and the kids were still playing happily with what they had already gotten, or they were napping, so we did skip a few hours. But I had the treat bags ready to go for when they needed a pick-me-up during the long hours in the car. Some examples of things in their bags were:
    • Frozen character dolls (Goodwill)
    • License plate game
    • Mr. Potato Head (Goodwill)
    • Travel Size Spirograph-knock-off (Dollar Tree)
    • Ninja Blow Darts (Dollar Tree) – they stick to car windows 🙂
    • Books
    • Sticks of sugarless gum
    • Fruit snacks in individual bags
    • Blow Pops
    • Magnetic Letters and a cookie sheet (Dollar Tree)
    • Toy insects, toy motorcycles (Goodwill)
    • Crayons, Paper, Clipboards, coloring books
  5. Daily Intentions. This is a good practice for every day, but especially when you’re about to be in a van or car for many hours with a group of people. Before we started out each day, once everyone was in the car and buckled in, we took a moment to ask each child, as well as Mom and Dad, what their intention for the day was. (We use the “fruit of the spirit” list from the Bible as possible intentions). We each choose one or two to focus on and remind one another about for the day. (This is part of my daily practice, when I finish yoga and pray, I set my mind on something to aim for throughout the day.) While our two-year-old doesn’t quite get it, our four- and nine-year-olds certainly do! They each chose “kindness” as their intentions. My husband chose “joy/fun and kindness,” and I chose “joy and gentleness” for mine, as I can get a bit harsh and short-tempered when I’m in stressful conditions (like a hot, crowded van with a lot of noisy kids!) It really helps to say aloud what your intention is, and since we’ve all shared them with one another, there is a level of accountability when we start to veer off course.
  6. Audio Books! I recently began listening to the Read Aloud Revival podcast and I just love it. It’s so inspiring! I’ve been trying to make an effort to cut back on screen time and amp up our family’s literary education, and this road trip was a perfect time to borrow some great books on CD from the library. We listened to The Magician’s Nephew (Book 1 of the Chronicles of Narnia,) Little House in the Big Woods, and Little House on the Prairie. It was great to rediscover these beloved stories with my kids, who were completely entranced by the narratives. Bonus: no motion sickness from staring at screens!
  7. Music, Singing, and Pointing Out New Terrain. We sang along with the Moana soundtrack about eight (OK, twelve) times, as well as some of our favorite kids’ songs (“The Wheels on the Bus,” “Down By the Sea,” etc.), and we pointed out all sorts of things we saw, from animals (look at the cows! the horses!) to machines (see that tractor? Look, a train!) to new terrain (deserts in Utah, canyons in Colorado, and mountains all the way). All of life can be a series of teachable moments, if we are intentional.
  8. Snacks. Duh! We packed a cooler with fresh fruit, veggies, nuts, cheese sticks, hard-boiled eggs (peeled), and water. We also packed goldfish crackers, popcorn, and peanut butter on cheese crackers. These snacks helped keep bellies full and spirits up. No hangry kiddos in our van!

I hope this helps if you’re planning a road trip. A bit of planning ahead and intention can go a long way to making a long road trip a really fun, rich, educational bonding experience for your family. And now that we’ve done this trip, I can’t wait for the next one!

What are some of your favorite tips for making family road trips awesome? Share them in the comments below!