At the Charles B. Wang Community Health Center, our program staff plays a major role in providing support and preventive health care services to our patients. Many are involved in creating and implementing effective educational and disease prevention programs that help patients to understand how to keep themselves and their family healthy. In this series, you will meet our staff and see how they go the extra mile to meet the needs of our community.
In the pediatrics exam rooms at the Charles B. Wang Community Health Center, there are bins of books readily available for children and parents to read while they wait for their pediatrician. For children less than 6 years old, tucked away in our Chinatown and Flushing exam rooms lie brand new books that they can take home after their wellness visits. This is all possible thanks to the Reach Out and Read, a national program where pediatricians “prescribe” books and reading time to children as a way to promote early literacy.
Dr. Loretta Au, the chief of pediatrics at the Manhattan site of the Health Center brought Reach Out and Read to our patients in April of 2001. “What’s unique about having a literacy program at the Health Center is that we’re reaching a group of people who may not go or have direct access to a library. When they’re here, they’re exposed to the reading,” says Dr. Au. “The doctors are telling parents to read to their child the same way they are told to give healthy foods to their child. Reading is one of the things you do to bond with your child and promotes language [skills], even at an early age,” she adds.
Reading aloud to children beginning at birth helps them develop early language skills and prepare for school. Children learn vocabulary and concepts, such as numbers, counting, colors, comparisons and storytelling through exposure to books. However, some families may not have the knowledge, exposure, or time to introduce books, spark conversations or bond with their child.
“Children in lower socioeconomic status tend to hear fewer words from their parents,” explains Kevin Li, program assistant at the Pediatrics Department. “Parents or grandparents may be at work and may not have time to talk to their kids, leaving them to their own devices.” Furthermore, to some immigrant parents and caregivers who do not speak English, picking up an English book may seem daunting.
To encourage more parents to read to their kids, the Pediatrics team and volunteers host reading events at the Health Center. “Volunteers who are reading to the kids may show parents something that they don’t normally see at home, and see that their kids are enjoying it,” says Kevin. Tapping into his younger self, Kevin plans creative events for little readers to make reading fun and relatable. At one event, after reading a book about growing vegetables and making vegetable soup, he organized an activity where kids planted seeds in an eggshell and brought them home.
“The emphasis,” Dr. Au says, “is not about reading the English words, but teaching parents how to use the book and pictures to expose their child to speech, to connect the learning with the real world, and to bond with their child.” Like many other pediatricians at the Health Center, Dr. Au reads with her patients to show parents that books can be fun and engaging.
In a time where handheld devices and learning apps are becoming more accessible, it’s critical for parents and children to build good media habits and find reading as an alternative and fulfilling activity. “Parents may not realize that the younger the child, the less understanding they have about screen time. The problem is that when kids are younger, [screens] can be addictive and they can become dependent on it. Parents should understand the limitations with the use of iPad and cell phones,” says Dr. Au. While there are applications and programs with educational value, Dr. Au stresses that viewing, engaging, and actively discussing the content with your child is where the learning takes place.
Working with the Reach Out and Read of Greater New York, the Health Center’s Manhattan site has distributed over 55,000 books since the start of the program in 2001.
“Success for me is that we continue to have a team of doctors who value this program to continue to give guidance and books at medical visits,” says Dr. Au. “The most fulfilling aspect of working with the Reach out and Read is giving the book to the patient at their checkup. The child’s face lights up, and it is an anticipated part of the visit. Parents are happy and excited to see what the free book is and wants to read with the child.”
Written by Bonnie Tse
Bonnie Tse is the communications coordinator at the Charles B. Wang Community Health Center. She has a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and food science from Hunter College.