One Friday morning, Leah Nixon was absorbing the rhythmic cadences of Rosalinde Block, a New York author who was reading to a group of young children and adults gathered at the Rapid City Public Library. But Nixon was also thinking about how his daughter Ellie processed words.
“As an artist, I’m interested in what they can figure out over the months,” Nixon said. “It’s amazing what she understands and is aware of in the books.”
Nixon, of Rapid City, is an illustrator and co-owner of a stationery business.
Block’s reading is part of a range of book-based activities offered by the Rapid City Public Library — as well as other area libraries — for young children. The importance of reading, and of early learning in general, is something that educators have been emphasizing for some time. Rapid City Area Schools Superintendent Lori Simon, for example, spoke in a recent speech about the vital role that early learning plays.
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Rapid City Public Library staff members take those kinds of words to heart as the library expands its offerings for early learning in the coming weeks.
The library already presents storytime sessions for children from birth to 3 years old called Baby Bumblebee Thursday Storytime. It also offers sessions for children ages 3 to 5 called Little Owl Tuesday Storytime.
Other events for small children are on the way. The library is launching a monthly event called Itsy-Bitsy Learners, especially for children ages 3-5, to be held on the last Sunday of each month. Sessions begin January 30 and run from 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.
“Kids can go from station to station and practice different elements of early literacy,” said Aly Quinn, events coordinator for the library.
In February, the library will launch another new event, also focused on toddlers and preschoolers, called Little Artists. The first session is scheduled for February 23, and sessions will run from 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. on the fourth Wednesday of each month.
“We explore artists and their techniques through different points in history,” Quinn said. “We will explore very popular artists, as well as lesser known artists.”
Quinn advised people to check the library’s websites for attendance limits and other events, including those for older children.
On Friday morning, Block sat on the floor for much of the reading, modulating her voice as different characters slipped into her stories. She started with “Christopher Crane” and went through readings from other books, including “Julia Morphs,” “Broccoli Robby,” and “Only Me: A Week in the Life of Eddie.”
As Block pondered reading next, she reflected on how language can offer some kind of solace to children — and not just when it comes to happy topics. Earlier this week, Block read to groups of third and first graders, and some of the topics the first-graders wanted to hear about, she said, were serious and dark. They understood death, divorce and other difficult topics.
“Kids want to be able to make sense of some of the things that are going on,” she said after Friday morning’s reading, noting that they want “a word to express how they feel.”
Block described reading, or listening to reading, as an active process for children. Ashley Bethke, early education librarian for the Rapid City Public Library, also considered how stories can spark some kind of active engagement with children as she discussed her work one recent afternoon.
When Bethke reads to the kids, she explained, she forgoes a chair.
“I’m going to sit on the floor,” she said, explaining that the effect can be “incredible, especially for your introverted kids.”
Bethke described how she turns reading stories into a kind of game, helping children learn and practice words by talking about pictures and objects – things that may be non-verbal in themselves, but that can trigger the use of language.
“I really want to impress on parents that there’s so much we can do with books,” she said, noting the possibility of using what she called a sensory trash can.
“Let’s say you’re reading about winter,” Bethke explained. “You can collect anything that has to do with winter: sticks outside, snowflake shapes or bells. You can put them in a tub and let the kids smell them. You can use vocabulary words and stimulate the senses.
Bethke advises adults to read in a fluctuating voice.
“Try to use as many voices as possible,” she said. “Make all the silly animal noises.”
For Nixon, bringing her 6-month-old daughter to the library brought fundamental benefits outside of the immediate contact with stories and words.
“Just exposing it to the library environment is pretty cool,” she said. “I hope that as she grows we will come here and hang out and participate in more readings.”
Glenda Nixon, Leah’s mother and Ellie’s grandmother, also attended Friday’s reading and reflected on the depth of reading in their family.
“We read to our kids all the time, and Leah reads to Ellie a lot,” Glenda Nixon said. “It’s one of the most beautiful things to do.”
People wanting more information can visit https://www.rapidcitylibrary.org/.