During the coronavirus crisis, children need books more than ever!

Young girls lying on floor reading picture book

By Rowena Phair

Senior Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Children can struggle to understand and cope with the sudden changes in their day-to-day life arising from COVID-19. Spending more time with their parents is a bonus for many children but confinement at home means they can no longer play with their friends, play in parks, go to sporting or other organised activities, or go to their early childhood education centre or school.

The OECD encourages countries with social distancing measures to distribute children’s books, especially to children in disadvantaged families. Recent OECD research shows that five-year-old children who are read to by their parents and have access to children’s books have higher levels of trust, empathy for others, pro-social skills and are calmer than other five-year-olds. This is in addition to benefits for children’s literacy and other cognitive skills. These benefits acrrue to children from all socio-economic groups.

OECD chart showing social-emotional scores of five-year-olds by frequency of being read to by parents
(OECD, 2020, Early Learning and Child Well-being)

With childcare centres and schools closed, children’s home environments are even more critical in meeting children’s need to feel safe and to be happy, as well as their learning needs. Older children may be able to link to online classes or other types of learning resources and connect via social media with their friends. Children from advantaged families may have unlimited access to e-books and other online activities. But this is not necessarily the case for children from disadvantaged families or children who are very young.

In normal times, children from disadvantaged families who have limited access to books and other learning resources typically lose one month of learning during the two month break from school over summer. Children from advantaged families do not experience this learning loss and in fact can make learning gains during this period, depending on the activities they engage in with their families and in their communities. This widening of disparities is likely to occur during the current period of confinement, unless someone steps in to help disadvantaged children and their families.

A number of charities and governments around the globe have focused on increasing children’s access to books, as a way of improving early literacy and because of the benefits literacy can bring. Many of these efforts target children from disadvantaged families. The Books in Homes programme, started by Alan Duffy in New Zealand, provides books to disadvantaged children through early childhood centres and schools. Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library mails one new book a month directly to disadvantaged pre-school children. Mobile children’s libraries such as BookBuses in the United Kingdom provide lending services to children in disadvantaged communities. Many of these services, along with early childhood centres and schools, are now suspended, at a time when the pleasure of reading new stories would be welcomed by many children, along with their parents.

Right now there are public and school libraries full of books that are not being used. These could be distributed to children who need them, where this can be done safely.

Children from poor households are four times less likely to have access to a good supply of children’s books at home than children from advantaged families. Yet parents currently have no access to libraries and shopping for children’s books, and other children’s activities online may not be feasible for those on limited incomes. At the same time, public and school libraries are full of books that are not being used. These could be distributed to children who need them, where this can be done safely.

What can countries do?

Initiate safe handling and distribution of children’s books to children in disadvantaged homes, using:

  • existing education and charitable networks, to deliver books directly to children’s homes, and/or
  • supermarkets and other food outlets in disadvantaged communities (the one place families still frequent) and/or
  • pop-up book distribution depots set up for this purpose.

Empty the libraries – children need books!

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