StoryWalks bring reading to life

By Jennifer Fontaine

New parent education initiative encourages parents to talk, sing, read, write and play with their children to promote early literacy

portrait of mother and sonWhen my children were younger, I would often take the bus with them. It was a nice alternative to a minivan, because I could devote my attention to my children instead of the road.

You may be familiar with the frantic dance of the lone-parent driver that involves chucking random objects backwards in a moving vehicle in attempts to satisfy children in the back seat. But on the bus, we could sit close together or with one on my lap, look out the window and talk about what we saw.

I could listen closely to my toddler’s questions, see their funny expressions and really focus on childhood conversations. Sometimes we could even read books together, if we’d remembered to pack a few. It was a much more relaxing experience for all of us.

Walking or biking had similar advantages. Conversations would come up and there were always opportunities to add to a growing vocabulary when experiencing everyday joys in life like splashing in a puddle, climbing a mountain of snow, smelling a flower or hearing a bird sing.

Through toddler eyes, a full adventure had taken place by the time we got home; especially if we’d stopped to climb a tree, collected rocks or had some ducks come close to us, and this would certainly require retelling the adventure to someone at home.

These real-life, multi-sensory experiences are important for early learning, encourage exploration and curiosity, and set the stage for lifelong learning. The word “splash” or the meaning of “puddle” is much more readily understood when splashing through one!

Later, a child will draw on these experiences when they see a picture of a puddle or hear the word in a story, building more connections in their developing brain.

It is in these everyday acts that parents and primary caregivers are children’s first teachers, and in the best position to help their children develop early literacy skills.

Every Child Ready to Read is a parent education initiative that encourages parents to talk, sing, read, write and play in order to nurture early literacy and pre-reading skills with children.

These actions sound simple, but in an age of hyper parenting and academic anxiety, give yourself a break. The latest research in early childhood education is focusing on the importance of connection and relationships. Take time to observe and listen to your child and enjoy simple activities with them to build on your connection.

Sometimes I overhear parents fretting that their child will not sit still to read a book. These parents begin to accumulate guilt and worry that their child is doomed academically. Not so! 

Walk around your neighbourhood and talk about what you see! Introduce new vocabulary to dramatic play or to describe your adventures. Talk through your visit to the grocery store and ask your child to help you find aisle three or milk. Count how many blue bicycles, red cars or dogs and cats you find on an outing.

Include numeracy in active games like hopscotch, hide-and-go-seek (counting to 10), or simply using 1-2-3 GO to start a race. On outings or car rides, make a game of searching for letters and numbers hiding on bus stops and signs. Point out road signs and talk about what they mean.

Describe what you see with rich language and ask open-ended (instead of yes or no) questions — your toddler may surprise you. Follow their lead to keep the conversation going. 

To encourage this idea that early literacy can be an enjoyable and an active part of your day, the Early Literacy Specialists at The Parent Resource Centre promote and organize StoryWalks with community partners like the Ontario Early Years Centres. 

Originally a project created by Vermont educator Anne Ferguson and developed in collaboration with the Vermont Bicycle & Pedestrian Coalition, StoryWalks are opportunities for children and families to experience reading a children’s story while walking through a chosen area such as a neighbourhood park or nature trail.

StoryWalk events combine family literacy with outdoor physical activity, and encourage parent engagement and community involvement.

Adding activities to a story provides opportunities to make more meaningful connections to a text. For example, over the winter, the Parent Resource Centre organized a StoryWalk using The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats.

Children would see the character in the book making snow angels or sliding down a hill, and then they tried it for themselves. The children would immediately make connections between the book, themselves and their world — something they will be encouraged to do in elementary school.

Another StoryWalk event was held recently at Ottawa City Hall, where Mayor Jim Watson proclaimed May 13 Ottawa Walking Day. Families, caregivers and young children were introduced to the cover of the book Stuck by Oliver Jeffers — a story of a boy whose kite gets stuck in a tree.

The children were asked to predict what the boy might do as they followed the pages of the book along the tree lined path at City Hall.  Most of the children ran to the next page, excited to find out what would happen next.

With the pictures at eye level for children, adults would crouch down to read the next page of the story: putting them in a position that experts would recommend as an ideal way to read with a child.

In addition to seeing parents, grandparents, caregivers and children enjoying reading together, the best reward of the day was probably the little girl who let me know the story was hi-la-ree-us! What a great word choice!

I realize life is hectic, and you may not always have time to literally stop and smell the flowers with your child.  But remember to play, keep the joy in reading, keep a few books in the diaper bag, as well as talk and sing together while you’re travelling in that minivan.

For additional information or upcoming StoryWalks, visit the Parent Resource Centre at

Jennifer Fontaine is an early literacy specialist at the Parent Resource Centre. 

Photo: © bakharev