The week before Half Term saw the eagerly awaited LitFest at Durston House School. It could not have come at a better time, straight off the heals of Children’s Mental Health Week. LitFest was brilliantly organised by Claire Green, Head of Complimentary Curriculum and Catherine Barnes, Head of English, with competitions, quizzes, form time activities, detective cinema recommendations, the brilliant poetry recital competition from Reception to Year 8 and four visiting authors. In any ‘normal’ year this would have been quite a logistical challenge, especially in such a busy Prep School with so much going on. For the week to be so successful during lockdown and partial school closure with our remote learning and virtual classrooms in full swing was a fantastic achievement.
The link between literacy and mental health, alluded to in my opening comments is important. The benefits of a strong reading habit cannot be underestimated. In 2018 the National Literacy Trust published its findings regarding the correlation between reading engagement and levels of mental wellbeing. Amongst its findings, the report found that children who are most engaged with literacy are three times more likely to have higher levels of wellbeing than children who are the least engaged.
So what exactly are the benefits for our mental health? Well, most obviously, reading is pleasurable. When you start a really good book it is often hard to put it down. Once lost in a good book studies show how stress levels reduce. Research by Dr David Lewis showed how reading as little as six minutes a day can reduce stress levels by as much as 60% by reducing your heart rate, easing muscle tension and altering your state of mind. That same study showed that reading was better at reducing stress than music, drinking a cup of tea, going for a walk or even playing video games.
Closely linked to reducing stress levels when you read is the ability to escape from the real world. When we read we create mental simulations of the activities, sights and sounds of scenes in a story, blending these with our own memories and experiences, all of which stimulates the neural pathways.
To the onlooker, reading can appear to be a solitary and passive activity. But the simple act of picking up a book can do us the world of good. Neil Gaiman, author from The Guardian had this observation: “When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters…you alone, using your imagination, create a world.”
At Durston, reading is taken seriously. Its benefits are far-reaching and reading for pleasure is a habit that is encouraged, nurtured and celebrated from the moment boys join in Reception. During these challenging times, it remains a constant, sometimes a refuge, and when have all had to spend more time at home, it has also allowed for the opportunity to lose ourselves in such a rewarding and beneficial pastime.