Could making stories accessible help children traumatized by conflict?

The value of print books for children is clear. As child development researchers, we’ve seen more than enough evidence of their benefits. Reading together with a trusted adult can have a large, positive effect on young children’s later language skills, literacy, and reading ability. For one thing, children hear more vocabulary from books than in their interactions with caregivers or teachers, making reading books an ideal activity for learning new words.

But if choosing a book from a shelf and reading it with an adult provides such a rich learning experience, what happens when this is no longer possible? Cuddling up with a caregiver and a charmingly illustrated children’s book is often no longer an option when conflict forces families to flee.

Digital books for children affected by war

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Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, BOLD author

Professor at the University of Delaware and University of Stavanger

Professor, University of Stavanger and The Open University

Can digital books help fill the void for traumatized children?

According to Save The Children, 468 million children were living in areas experiencing armed conflicts in 2022. Millions of refugee children are dispersed across the world, with more leaving their home countries every day.

These children are in desperate need of support in their learning. And a small thing we can do, as child development researchers, is to encourage the use of well-designed digital books to provide access to stories when print books are no longer accessible. When thoughtfully made, digital books can promote parent-child conversation during reading as much as, or even more than, print books.

In our own work, we have found, unsurprisingly, that while children can learn by reading digital books on their own, they learn more when they read those books with a parent. This is the key takeaway: Digital books can be just as valuable as print books when they are read with a nurturing caregiver who responds to the child.

Reading alone or with a family member is not only a learning opportunity, but also a chance for children to stay in touch with their culture, despite the chaos they may be facing. Digital books can be a simple solution for displaced families, although caregivers may prefer print books. Most parents carry a mobile phone – a lifeline – and with it, a potentially unlimited library of digital stories.

Individual books can be distributed to millions online and read anytime, anywhere. Families can read the same story at the same time, even when they are not in the same place. Children can listen to stories in digital books with narrated text when their stressed parent or caregiver is struggling to make decisions about the family’s future. They can read at their own pace, and they can also create their own digital stories. What’s more, digital books weigh next to nothing – a significant advantage for refugee families who have little room for traditional books.

Digital libraries can recreate the wonder children experience when entering a real library, offering all the choices and exciting covers that print books do, and delight children just as much.

Digital books can be just as valuable as print books when they are read with a nurturing caregiver who responds to the child.

Digital books during the COVID-19 pandemic and in conflict situations

Inspired by the success of digital books used during the COVID-19 pandemic, such as Corona e-books, and in an effort to help Ukrainian children, wherever they may be, we created a website containing hundreds of digital books, called Stories with Clever Hedgehog – the hedgehog being a favorite Ukrainian animal. The books and the website offer children an element of fantasy and the comfort of a connection with their culture. Clever Hedgehog also includes games, ideas for reducing parent and child stress, fun facts about Ukraine, art opportunities, and even Ukrainian children’s songs. These resources connect children with the marvels of their home country.

Many researchers lament young children’s overuse of screens, and we share their concerns. Unfortunately, many digital programs are not based on the science of learning and have not lived up to the promise of this technology. Applications such as Clever Hedgehog, however, present another side to screens. Digital books make it possible for children to keep learning despite the new challenges they may be facing. They allow children sitting on railway platforms, crowded into family cars, or just needing a bedtime story, to escape briefly to the forest, the seaside, or even back to their own homes. Digital books allow children’s imaginations to soar, providing respite from their concerns and fears.

Digital books make it possible for children to keep learning despite the new challenges they may be facing.

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tags: digital books for kids, kids affected by war, ebooks for refugees, ebooks for Ukrainian refugees