Blue Zones is the name of a book based on research in places around the world with concentrations of people who live to be 100 years old, including in Okinawa in Japan Sardinia in Italy, and communities of Seventh Day Adventists in Loma Linda, California. The researchers found a number of habits that long-lived people in all these places had in common, such as eating diets high in plant foods, exercising regularly, and having strong social connections.
Other researchers have also found that physical and mental health benefits are associated with social bonds. For example, Professor Dean Ornish, M.D., who has done path-breaking research on reversing cancer, diabetes, and other diseases, has a four-part formula for health: Eat well (plant-based diets), Move more (exercise), Stress less (find ways to relax), and Love more. Love more refers to social connections with family, friends, and nonhuman animals, such as cats.
Professor Ornish has reviewed the thousands of studies which call attention to the need for connection, and he concludes that, “People who feel lonely, depressed, and isolated are three to ten times more likely to get sick and die prematurely from virtually all causes when compared to those who have strong feelings of love, connection, and community.” For example, one study compared two groups of women suffering from breast cancer. The two groups were identical, except that one group attended a weekly support meeting. Those women lived twice as long as those who did not have the support group.
Yes, today, we have all kinds of social networking opportunities, and they do provide connection; they do have value. However, such online connections lack the quality of face-to-face, person-to-person relationships. For example, in-person communication gives us more information, as we can more easily read body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice than via text messages, social media, and even conferencing platforms.
Fortunately, reading aloud can play an important role in building and maintaining the social connections that boost the health of all the participants. Adults and children may not have similar interests; we may not have much in common, may not have reasons to come together. Fortunately, reading aloud provides us a common activity that we can share and enjoy. It gives us a reason to connect with one another.
We can further build those bonds via the discussions we have while reading. The talk sparked by the books helps us know each other better. The books are creations of people we don’t know, but the talk the books spark comes from people who are part of our lives. To cultivate those discussions, we can choose books with themes related to social connections. For example, many children’s books talk about families, and many others talk about relations between people, such as relations between friends.
Two famous children’s books are The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein and Incident at Hawk’s Hill by Allan W Eckert. The first is about a friendship between a tree and a human. The tree cares deeply about their human friend, but the human does not appreciate the interspecies friendship until it is too late. In Incident at Hawk’s Hill, a six-year-old boy is isolated from peers because he is shorter than average and does not enjoy the same activities as other boys. Fortunately, his mother and later his father support him, as he overcomes difficulties.
The themes of family and friendship, along with many others, are on the minds of children, and our read aloud sessions give children a chance to voice their hopes and fears, and hear that others have similar concerns. Thus, children see that they are not alone, as they navigate the often choppy waters of social relations. Plus, we can share our own experiences and offer our advice. Very importantly, we can also take the opportunities that read aloud dialogs give us to reassure children that they can depend on our support and the support of others in their social circle.
Summary: Social connections are essential for children and adults. Read aloud sessions, including the dialogs that are crucial aspects of reading aloud, offer openings for building and strengthening these connections.