After a night at the library, stuffed animals help kids read

A baby seal, a giraffe and a teddy bear walk into a library …

No, this isn’t the start of another corny dad joke. It’s the latest way to encourage kids to read.

You can’t help but “awww” at the images: An adorable stuffed puppy peruses the picture book section while a much-loved, understuffed bunny hops through the chapter books.

They’re the actual loveprys of young children who left them at the library for a “sleepover.” Library workers snap photos of them choosing books, reading together, bonding over “The Rainbow Fish.” When kids pick them up the next day, they can see how much fun their little friends had with books — and the hope is that it will encourage more children to explore reading.

West Orange Library in New Jersey has been hosting the parties for more than four years. Its “stuffed animal sleepover” draws in kids through second grade who still get a thrill from a teddy bear party.

For the sleepover last week, Faith Boyle, the library’s director of youth activities, read “Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale” by Mo Willems to a group of children and their fluff-filled companions. After that late afternoon story time, the children kissed their toys good night.

A group of teenage volunteers quickly got to work, snapping photos of the stuffed animals in the library. There were images of a teddy bear and bunny holding hands while watching a puppet show and a tiny plush alligator reading about swamps. Even the photos of the monkeys sneaking Chips Ahoy cookies from the break room made it onto the library’s Facebook page.

“We try to engage children in a different way. … It gets them excited about reading and visiting the library,” Boyle said.

In a study published Tuesday in the journal Heliyon, researchers monitored 42 Japanese preschoolers, aged 3 upwards, whose stuffed pals spent time at a library. They wanted to see how the animals could get the students to read during their free play time.

“We wanted to know if there really was an effect, and if so, how long it lasts,” lead author Yoshihiro Okazaki of Okayama University said in a news release. “Surprisingly, not only did the children show interest in the picture books, but they also began to read to their stuffed animals. This means that a new behavior pattern emerged that the children had not exhibited before; we did not expect anything like this.”

What if your local library isn’t sending out overnight invitations just yet?

William Teale, president of the International Literacy Association, said “an incredibly important thing that parents can do for their kids is read to them. It’s as simple as that.”

Parents can try:

Reading to your children daily, choosing one or two books to read repeatedly Pairing a book with an activity, like going to the park Choosing toys that appear as characters in picture books

Teale, a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said that when you pair reading with a toy or stuffed animal, , kids become a part of the story. And they will start to show interest on their own. “They’ll look at pictures in a book, and they’ll start to use some of the words in the book,” he said.

Teale notes that it is not just toys and stuffed animals that help engage children. There are books about going to the park, vacations and many other things your child may be interested in. Reading these along with an activity helps develop good reading habits.

“Engaging in those kinds of things when you’re a preschool child,” Teale said, “helps you become a better reader and sets the foundations for learning to read conventionally.”

Teale suggests that parents avoid making reading and other academic skills a chore. “What you really want to do is make reading a part of all different activities in the home,” he said.

The ability to understand reading as an activity weaved into daily life is crucial, Teale says, to raising curious minds.

“Look for those things that you do with children at home and think, ‘Hmmm, how could I smuggle some reading into this?'”