A yellow fabric bug wearing red dungarees is poking his head out of a bag of books. The bag arrives at the home of a little boy, and within moments, the bug is spotted and pulled out for a cuddle.
This is Bookbug, the mascot of the Scottish Book Trust’s early years programme, and he’s on a new mission.
The Bookbug scheme, which is familiar to families with young children across Scotland, gives all babies a bag of books shortly after birth, and at three other key stages in their early years, and runs free song and story sessions in most local libraries.
Launched in its current form in 2010, it is supported by a growing body of evidence about the value of sharing books and songs with the very young, helping with bonding and brain development, and building vital social and communication skills.
Despite the scheme’s broad early success, the team behind it felt that Bookbug (a character created by children’s author Debi Gliori) could be doing more to reach the children who needed him most – so they decided that it was time to head out of the library and into homes.
“We know that singing, reading and rhyming with children from birth is beneficial to their future development,” explains Hazel Benzie, early years outreach manager for the Scottish Book Trust. “However we recognised that, although book gifting and library sessions are freely accessible, there are many barriers which may prevent a family from accessing the benefits of the programme.
“Bookbug for the Home was developed to enable professionals and volunteers who are already working with families in their own homes, to be able to deliver small elements of the Bookbug approach in a private, safe environment where parents and carers can build their confidence week-on-week.”
In its essence, Bookbug for the Home is simple. It involves a (Scottish Book Trust trained) practitioner or volunteer visiting a home, introducing some songs and nursery rhymes, and reading a book with the children, and, critically, their parents.
It is hoped that parents will gain the confidence to read and sing with their children more, and will also be encouraged to attend public Bookbug sessions. Increased understanding of the benefits, and enjoyment, that these activities can bring is a key goal.
While in some cases a visit may be planned around the Bookbug session, in others a professional (e.g. a health visitor) may be making a home visit for other reasons, and Bookbug can play an added role, helping to break the ice, and as a tool to build relationships, trust and confidence.
A Bookbug session is more fun than conventional song and story sessions can be, thanks to an injection of imagination and the inclusion of some clever tools. There are puppets, a lucky dip bag full of little toys linked to songs, and a sheet of sparkly lycra that can become anything from a magic story mat to a trampoline. At the centre of it all is a (good) book.
Julie Jardine, an early years practitioner at Corsehill Primary school in Kilwinning in Ayshire, has used the approach to help build confidence in families where the children are starting nursery. “For us, it’s a tool to build up relationships and provide support,” she says.
“When children find it hard to settle, and their parents don’t want to leave them at nursery upset, I sometimes go out to their house and do a few Bookbug sessions. It helps them to feel more comfortable about coming in.”
“I normally start a session by going in with a prop – maybe a drawstring bag with Bookbug poking out the top – and just have an informal chat with the parents, and then the child will notice Bookbug, and ask to see it – and we can sit down and start. Some parents can be very shy about singing and reading, but over a number of sessions they start to be more confident.”
“I worked with one mum who had suffered from depression and struggled getting out of the house. One day she mentioned that she had liked Incy Wincy spider when she was a child, so the next week I made sure there was a spider in the song bag. By the end of our sessions she was happy joining in. Now she reads and sings with her child and says she has developed a much better bond with him.”
Bookbug for the Home has been rolled out over the last four years, starting with training in eight local authorities, and now operates in all 32.
It is delivered by a range of staff and volunteers, from health visitors, social workers and speech and language therapists to educational psychologists, parent volunteers and childminders, and supports a variety of families, including those lacking confidence, those who have experienced trauma, those where the children have delayed speech or behavioural problems, and those whose children are accommodated or are affected by substance misuse or imprisonment.
In Argyll and Bute, the programme was introduced in 2014, largely through volunteers with the family support charity Home-Start. Monitoring showed that, though it was on a small scale, Bookbug for the Home had a clear impact, with eight out of a sample of 12 families involved reporting that they had increased the amount of singing that they were doing at home, and six out of 12 reading more books.
Interviews with these families give a further flavour of the programme’s impact, and show that it is as much about relationships as literacy. “The kids are better behaved at bedtime,” said one parent, while another commented: “Bookbug brings us closer.”
“You don’t have to be able to read to share books,” observed a volunteer who had introduced Bookbug to a family in which the father could not read. “Dad wants his son to be able to read, so I reinforce the role that he can play in just sharing books with his child. He was amazed at how much his son engaged with his books.”
Edinburgh-based research consultancy Blake Stevenson has been following the Bookbug for the Home programme since its inception, observing its benefits on a broader scale. Its April 2015 evaluation, noted “clear evidence of impact of Bookbug activities in the home on families” with 93% of early years professionals involved observing a positive impact.
Now that the programme is being delivered across Scotland, the focus is on strengthening links between local authorities and third sector partners, and identifying new audiences for training, so that more people (such as foster carers and community childminders) have the opportunity to use these distinctive song and story sessions in their work.
Bookbug has many high profile supporters, from its patron, Gruffalo author Julia Donaldson, to Scotland’s former chief medical officer Sir Harry Burns, an expert on the early years.
Perhaps the best known enthusiast of the scheme is Dolly Parton, who is a passionate campaigner for literacy, and contributed a song to the latest Bookbug Toddlers CD. Typically direct, her analysis (given in a recent video message) gets to the core of what the research, and the programme itself, is all about.
“If every kid grows up with a book in their hand and a song in their heart,” she says, “then there’s a pretty good chance that their dreams will come true.”
For more information, go to http://www.scottishbooktrust.com/bookbug