Leo is three and he is looking up at us with big and wondering eyes as we read our story to a group of children and adults. We have learned to keep the stories we read very simple. Not too many words, even though a good many of the children at our feet or sitting on their parent’s laps, often follow storybooks with far more text. We notice that all the children are enjoying the story, even the babes, even the restless five-year-olds.

Short simple stories with big clear pictures seem to confirm the child’s sense of competence. They can really grasp and take in the story, even though they have heard it many times before. They sit straight, attend closely and look satisfied and confident, answering our rhetorical questions about whether Albert the naughty dog is lonely, or whether the hungry caterpillar could really eat so much food.

We had at first thought that more complex and subtle stories would extend the children and possibly be of more interest to the adults. But we discovered that simplicity seemed to be crucial to the success of the project at Ptunarra Child and Family Centre.

Luke, 18 months old, is sitting alongside his mum, watching the pages turn and gazing intently at the pictures. But then his attention wanders to the ride-on toys in the garden outside and he starts to get up to investigate. Just then a tray of banana cake is passed to his mum, who offers Luke a slice. Luke sits back down, settles into his mum’s arms and begins to attend closely to the story again, munching his cake with a contented look. An important link has been made: books and stories and sitting in a group is a safe and lovely thing to do; it is a family thing to do.

The Child & Family Centres have offered a game-changing strategy to launch children into formal learning. Each centre (there are twelve in Tasmania) offers a relaxed preschool-like setting, where children (mostly under five) and their parents, family or carers can drop in, participate in events or just hang out. Centres are staffed by a variety of community workers, early education specialists and nurses, as well as offering space for visiting professionals. The centres have a particular brief to enable more vulnerable children and families to easily access relevant services.

Tamara is three and can be quite anxious and unsettled. Her family experienced some difficult and traumatic times after her mum was injured in a motor vehicle accident with Tamara in the car. At times she is cross or clingy with her dad, easily upset or oppositional to adult requests. Sitting and attending in a group is harder for her. But Tamara has come to use the story event as a quiet, settled time, either sitting on her dad’s lap or on Penny’s. She tracks very closely a story about a woman losing her hat in a big wind, turns the pages eagerly and comments at the end, ‘She got her hat back, Dad!’

As psychologists working in the field of infant and child mental health, we believe that all learning occurs in the context of relationships. Learning is based on the capacity of the mind to make sense of experience and to link experiences together. When sitting with a parent and being read stories, children have the best opportunity to learn how ideas are linked with emotions and relationships. A sense of safety allows young children to discover and become curious enough to learn about their world, about the worlds waiting in books and stories. So often we think about learning as something children come to when separated from their family. But being ready to acquire literacy skills starts a long time before sitting on the group mat in kindergarten at school.

In the Feed and Read project, we try to create the conditions for parents and children to experience words, text, story in an atmosphere of safety and relatedness. We hope this will encourage adults to read to their children at home and acclimatise the children to participating in a group focused on literacy. Supporting the relationship between child and adults, as early as possible, provides the best basis to ensure children have the capacity to think and feel secure in facing the future demands of learning.

Allie had a very traumatic start to life. She was born premature and her father was violent towards her mother and unpredictable for her. Both mother and child are very anxious, and sit on the outer edge of the group when they first attend Feed and Read. But over time, with familiar and predictable routine, Allie comes to really enjoy listening while the story unfolds, with her mum’s arms wrapped around her. Penny asks the group, ‘Does anyone have a naughty dog like Albert at home?’ Ally calls out assertively, ‘We have a naughty dog. He jumps up and licks people but he never bites.’

We believe the child and family centres offer a very good model for supporting families to build more trusting relationships with professionals by allowing informal access to expert opinion. For example, after building up some rapport with visiting parents over time it becomes possible for centre staff to gradually identify and talk to parents about their child’s language development and make a supported referral to a speech pathologist. Even more significantly, we have observed centre staff ‘contain’ and manage some very at-risk family circumstances and support them to find better ways of managing stress and conflict. Reducing danger and stress enables children to develop and learn in ways they cannot if they are troubled and preoccupied by worry.

Because parents are at their most vulnerable and open to learning new ways of doing things in the first years of their child’s life, this is the time to devote resources to achieve the most cost-effective long-term outcomes. Our experience has been that this kind of milieu-based intervention offers opportunities to provide early intervention for deficits and difficulties which otherwise might not be addressed until many years later.

Many parents who have grown up in deprived circumstances have poor relationships with literacy and have difficulty passing on to their children a living interest in books and reading, expecting that ‘the professionals’ will ‘train’ these skills later. Parents who were not read to as children feel particularly anxious when no one has quite shown them how it is done, nor how pleasurable it is for children to share books with parents.

If the parents’ own literacy skills are poor, they may be less willing to read to their children due to fear of exposing their difficulties. When these children start formal learning, they have little relationship with books and reading, and no context for literacy acquisition as a fun, shared experience. For this reason, we believe that some parents need models and shared experiences rather than being told what to do and how to do it. We think the key is using books to further the relationship rather than to teach children literacy. It is about learning as play in the context of a loving relationship, rather than learning as a task.

The earlier this starts the better.

The local schools give feedback that children attending the child and family center are much more relaxed and open to the challenges of starting school. They are described as ‘ready for learning’. Just like taking in food, children absorb good experiences that help them grow and develop. Reading stories together in a group with their carers in a relaxed setting can lay the foundations for secure relationships and greater confidence in learning.

(Names and circumstances have been changed to maintain confidentiality.)

Dr Penny Jools and Brad Freeman are clinical psychologists, who have worked in the areas of child and adolescent, couple and family mental health for over 30 years each. They visit Ptunarra Child and Family Centre in New Norfolk each week, providing a healthy shared lunch and reading a couple of stories to engage adults and children in a literacy-focused event. Here, they write for the Communicating: The Heart of Literacy initiative – find more at chattermatters.com.au