Turning children into bookworms

Young children gain great benefit from reading, say experts Keystone

All babies born in Switzerland will soon be receiving a free pack of books under the new Bookstart scheme, aimed at giving children a lifelong appreciation of reading.

This content was published on May 5, 2008 - 08:21

The programme, based on a British idea, has the support of the Federal Culture Office. The first packs are due to go out at the end of May.

The scheme is being organised by the public libraries association Bibliomedia and the Swiss Institute for Youth and Media.

"We want to raise awareness of language among parents and stress the importance of children coming into contact with books in the first years of their development," Peter Wille, director of Bibliomedia and head of Bookstart Switzerland, told swissinfo.

The pack will contain two children's books in German, French or Italian, instructions for parents and a library voucher. The aim is to get mothers and fathers to read to their youngsters.

"We know that books are not present in an increasing number of families, so reading is not becoming something normal," Wille said.

He said that the competing attractions of the television and the internet were partly to blame, but some parents did not spend enough time talking to their children. Reading allows families to "explore the world together", he added.

73,000 babies

Bookstart wants to reach the around 73,000 children born in Switzerland each year. The packs will be distributed by children's doctors or in maternity wards, depending on the region.

For the Federal Culture Office, it is important to support reading activities by parents.

"Schools are doing a lot to teach reading and writing but if you want to really succeed there you have to start very early in life," said Marimée Montalbetti, head of the culture and society section at the culture office, told swissinfo.

"The fact that books are in families from the first year is very important," she said.

Wille says that in recent years concerns have been raised about reading levels in children. An estimated 20 per cent of adults also have reading problems, he added.

This was one reason why Bookstart was now being launched in Switzerland, he explained.

British roots

Bookstart was set up in Britain in 1992 and has spread to countries including Australia, Japan and Belgium.

It came about after research found that two and three year olds in families in which books were shared started school with significant advantages and scored highly in some pre-school tests.

The scheme now aims to reach up to 2.1 million children at three stages: babies, toddlers and three to four year olds. It has the support of more than 20 publishers and the government.

Roland Marden, National Research and Evaluation Coordinator of the British Bookstart, told swissinfo in a written statement that Bookstart Switzerland had been very successful in developing their programme.

"Working in partnership with health services and libraries, the programme is spreading the joy of reading to thousands of babies across the different communities in the country," he said.


A particular challenge facing the Swiss Bookstart will be how to integrate the 20 per cent foreign population, some of whom do not speak a national language.

Wille says some information for foreign parents has been prepared and they are working with foreigners' organisations. But this is still in its early days.

In all, Bookstart has a budget of SFr600,000 ($579,000) per year for its three-year start phase and is also working with private partners. It is expected to be a long-term project.

Its supporters are hoping that the benefits will be long lasting. "If you have this relationship between books and pleasure as a child it might stay with you as an adult," said Montalbetti.

swissinfo, Isobel Leybold-Johnson

British Bookstart

Working through locally based organisations, Bookstart gives the gift of free books to children at around eight months, 18 months and around three years, along with guidance materials for parents and carers. It aims to foster a love of books through a range of activities.

Bookstart is a public and private partnership and benefits from sponsorship from over 20 children's publishers, Red House Books and central funding. It is run by Booktrust, an independent national charity.

Bookstart also exists in Belgium, Ireland, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Australia, Thailand and the Falkland Islands. It has links with other schemes in New Zealand, the United States and Canada.

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Swiss Bookstart

The scheme was officially launched on April 23, World Book Day. The first packs will go out in late May.

The aim of the project is to give babies and toddlers aged 0-3 a book pack. 50,000 packs will be sent out initially. Also contained in the pack is a voucher for one of the country's 1,000 public libraries, which will be putting on some special events to promote the scheme.

Private sponsors are NordSüd Verlag publishing house and Axa Winterthur Insurances.

In the German-speaking part of Switzerland, children's doctors will hand out the packs, in the French-speaking part, this will happen in maternity wards.

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