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Picture This! Why Books with Real Photos Help Kids Discover the Big, Wide World

Photo by Jakob / Stocksy United / 203870
Photo by Jakob / Stocksy United

By Cheryl Flanders

Sure, we’ve been reading to babies because we know that just hearing and seeing words helps build language connections—but did you know that the learning goes beyond just language? New research from the University of London has found that even before their first birthday, babies are able to learn about the real world indirectly through books that include real photographs. Amazing, right? Here’s why it works:

Your baby bounced into existence with a pretty blank canvas, meaning his brain is very busy trying to connect all the dots in a completely new, infinitely amazing world! Right now, he doesn’t have words for the things he sees every day—he needs you to teach him the labels for what we all commonly agree is a cat, or a dog, or a blanket, or a cup.

By looking at a book featuring pictures of real items or animals, your baby will begin to associate what she sees in the book with what she experiences every day: for example, that kitty in the book is just like Oscar, the family pet. Every time she sees Oscar, she’ll know that’s a cat–and she’ll know objects in books have names and meaning. A brilliant pre-language learning connection is being made!

Here’s a few guidelines for choosing images to support your baby’s learning:

  • Select real photos that represent objects she can relate to in her everyday environment.
  • “Read the pictures” by telling your baby what the photo represents.
  • Choose photos that connect with something your baby can touch and explore with his hands. For example, if there is a photo of a cup in the book, offer him a plastic cup to examine. This will strengthen the connection between what he sees in the book, and what he experiences in the real world.
Photo by Kate Daigneault / Stocksy United / 1109735
Photo by Kate Daigneault / Stocksy United

Of course, we’re not saying there’s no value to reading books with regular illustrations. Any time you’re cuddling with your little one and looking at a book together is valuable bonding time and a great pre-language ritual. Just throw in the real photos periodically for the best of both worlds!

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