Reading and Feeding Imaginations: How books open young minds to unlimited opportunities

Last week I had the privilege of attending a fundraising reception for Beanstalk, a small charity that recruits, trains and supports volunteers to provide consistent, one-to-one literacy support to early years and primary school children who need help. These helpers give such children the support they need to improve their reading ability and - crucially - their confidence. It’s a charity that my family is proud to support, and they asked me to speak about why we do so. Here is the speech I gave:-

“I’ve known for a few weeks now that I’d be speaking this evening and, although I knew broadly my theme, I must admit I left it to the last minute to think about how to start what I want to say. This morning I got my notebook out, and a piece of paper I always keep in there fell out. I knew it was a sign! It’s this piece of paper …. a marriage certificate.

Not my marriage certificate, but that of my great, great grandparents. They were married in 1862, just over 100 years before I was born, and we can see that they were John and Sarah, and that were farm labourers. All interesting to me, but why it may be interesting to you is how they signed their names. With ‘x’s. For neither could read nor write.

Now this piece of paper has had a huge effect on how I think about myself. I’ve seen photographs of my grandparents and great grandparents, who look very much like me, and so I’m sure that John and Sarah did too; I’m sure they had ambitions like I do, and passions and aspirations for a better life. But by not being able to read they will have severely reduced their opportunities to fulfil their potential, or in all honesty, even know what their potential was, because they likely didn’t discover through books the whole world of information, opportunities and ideas to feed their imagination, to keep it expanding.

Feeding an imagination is so important. My learning as a father and as the founder of Ella’s Kitchen, is that toddlers are THE BEST version of human beings that there is. I hate to tell you that the best ‘you’, was when you when 5 or 6 years old. I’ve even written a best-selling book: Little Wins: The Huge Power of Thinking Like a Toddler (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Little-Wins-Power-Thinking-Toddler/dp/0241977940) to articulate why I think this. It boils down to the free thinking, self-confidence, honesty, ambition, determination, creativity and imagination that nearly all of us had at that age, and which we nearly all lose as we get older. We lose imagination when we conform, we forget our dreams and that stimulus to our imagination wanes. The way to feed it, to keep it vibrant, to open the world up is through books. Yes books teach us the vital skill of reading, but they also introduce us to new horizons every time we open a book and look at a picture, or become intrigued by a character. We learn to explore and discover new passions. I have a lifelong interest in countries, flags, cultures and people because I spent hours pawing over an atlas when I was in early primary school.

Unfortunately for John and Sarah, Beanstalk didn’t exist in the 1860’s; but it does now.

Beanstalk’s work is especially important at this time in our history, when our education system is effectively unchanged from the time when free primary education was established in the late nineteenth century, largely to ensure that working class kids could learn the minimum, so that by the age of 14, they could work in factories or the army and not make mistakes. We no longer need standard, mass exams which narrow kids’ focus so that they all come out the same. Our society desperately needs different thinkers, children with more confidence, communication skills and creativity. We need to get away from a long summer break where kids from homes where books are normal, gain more confidence, imagination and skills - whilst those kids whose families don’t have this heritage, stagnate at best at the level at which they attained in the previous term.

Beanstalk’s work is also vital in a time of austerity, when schools don’t have budgets for extra reading help and often not for books themselves.

The trained volunteers at Beanstalk have the real ability to change lives, and the trajectory by which future opportunities can be realised. It may seem a small nudge to donate an hour a week to support a child to become more comfortable with books, but its little ripples like this that create waves of impact on life opportunities: yes through literacy improvements, but also in simple confidence and extensions of imagination or knowledge of the world to discover personal passions. All of which can change lives and deliver opportunities for children, families, communities and our whole society.

Let me end with my great-great grandparents and their marriage certificate. If they had been able to write their names that day, and also no doubt the thousands of working class labourers like them, I like to imagine that perhaps we would have discovered the cure for cancer by now, or earlier political reform, or maybe a painting of theirs would hang in the National Gallery or, perhaps more realistically, they would have discovered simple pleasures and concepts that would have helped them in their discovery of who they actually were and made their lives better lived.”

If you’d like to find out more about Beanstalk please visit www.beanstalkcharity.org.uk

Or perhaps consider supporting Beanstalk’s crowdfunding campaign at https://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/readgrowthrivewithbeanstalk