March 9, 2009

The Experience Book

This is adapted from a piece I wrote in March 2006, when Hadley was 4 1/2 years old. The Experience Book is something I worked on almost daily for about four years (I think we have 12 or more volumes, plus shorter thematic books too!). As you can read in the article, I didn't always love working on the book, but they were--without a doubt-- among our most powerful tools in developing and strengthening Hadley's expressive language. I never got around to doing a traditional baby book for Hadley, but these books include all those pieces and hundreds of bits more about our first few years of being a family.


We learned of Experience Books at our very first auditory-verbal therapy session. Lea mentioned how important they are throughout these early years to encourage and sustain strong language development. She told heart-warming stories about how children love to read about themselves, love to pore over old experience books, and even carted our her daughter’s first experience book from over 20 years ago. I quickly put together a photo album of Hadley’s relatives, favorite activities, and prized toys. Lea said it was fine, but when was I starting an experience book? I made another album filled with regular daily occurrences, pictures of Hadley brushing her teeth and eating breakfast. Lea sat me down and said, I need you to draw instead of take pictures.

I thought, what in the world is this woman talking about?

Hadley’s first experience book was started at age 13 months. Most every day of her life has been chronociled in her experience books since then, now numbering seven volumes. Everything Lea first told me about Experience Books has come true. Hadley loves to read and reread her books, taking great delight in discussing the pictures and reliving fun memories. She has favorite pages that she returns to again and again. I love to look through them to remember important milestones: when she began identifying shapes and colors, said her first sentence, or used the toilet for the first time. We remember snippets of our lives: the night we watched the sky turn a brilliant purple while the sun set, the week in March when we could watch the sun rise over the trees, the excitement when Hadley held a baby in her arms all on her own. Most importantly, these experience books have hammered language into Hadley’s being, helping words and ideas and thoughts gel in her brain and generate themselves into clear and concise language. These experience books have become the most important tools we have used in two years of auditory-verbal therapy.

And I still dread doing it.

I am not an artist. I am not a terribly creative person. I procrastinate and habitually delay doing things until the very last minute. I am unorganized and rarely know where my things are. However, I recognize the importance of these experience books and value the impact they have had on Hadley’s life. And, since I have yet to do anything with the box of pictures that will someday become her baby book, these books have become a wonderful collection of the big and small moments of Hadley’s first 2 ½ years. So, I have compiled a list of things that have helped me continue to create this incredible tool and family tribute.

1. Use quality materials. I have used sketchbooks with heavy weight paper as well as scrapbooks. I like bindings that allow the book to lie flat; it’s easier for a young child to read and for the artist (the parent!) to draw.
2. Develop your books around themes. Our earliest books just end whenever we ran out of pages and needed to start another book. After a while, I opted to do a seasonal theme and have since created these books around Spring (March – May), Summer (June – August), Fall (September – November) and Winter (December – February).
3. Find a separate special home for the Experience Books. We have a basket where all the books are kept. They are in a well-used room so there is no chance that they can be hidden away and forgotten. We have them in a prominent place to encourage visitors to look at them and ask questions.
4. Keep a list handy for ideas. There are days when I will be at a loss about what to include in the day’s entry. Some days, I have so many ideas that I can’t use them all. I keep a list (actually, a few of them!) where I jot down ideas to remind myself: that Hadley discovered that some music is sung and some only has instruments; that she was a good friend to someone who was angry; that she told a joke. I purchased an inexpensive pocket calendar where I can write down date-specific entries in case it takes me a few days to make an entry into the Experience Book, or you can grab any free calendar that you might find at a bank or store.
5. Save things! Anything that is mailed to Hadley eventually finds its way into the book. We include tickets, receipts, leaves, drawings, pictures, artwork—anything that Hadley finds interesting or important enough to comment on. We spend a lot of money on double-sided tape.
6. Involve the child. Around 2, we began asking Hadley what she thought was the favorite part of her day. On busy days, we’d ask her to be specific about the favorite part of a certain activity. Usually, we can use her answer to create the day’s entry in the book. She is now old enough to help out with the drawings or do them herself. We have high hopes that someday this will become her special project and she will make it her own.

7. Involve others. Other children and even adults have been guest contributors to the experience book. Often, the entry is a picture that someone has drawn (Hadley came to visit my house today, or Hadley and I had fun pretending to be giants).
8. Share the responsibility. The experience book should not be something that just one parent does. Let’s face it: most of us don’t want to spend 10 minutes every night or 1 hour every week working on the book. We have too much other stuff to do. The experience book is such an important tool that you don’t want to risk it becoming a chore. Share the wealth and find a way for both parents to contribute.
9. Don’t gripe. It’s taken me 18 months, but I am finally comfortable with skipping a day now and then. Sometimes, there really isn’t anything to comment on. Some weeks you need a little break. My personal rule is to always have something for at least 5 days of the week—otherwise, you really start to skimp.
10. Be the star of the day. Lea suggested early on that we find one day and just take pictures all day long of all of our activities, and use those to create a photo book of a day in the life of our child. As a joke, I chose May 5—Cinco de Mayo—when Hadley was seven months old to do this book. When Lea saw it she said it was great—and suggested we do it every single year. So, we now do an annual Cinco de Mayo book each year. It is a ton of work, but so much fun to review them.
11. Focus on AV goals. While many of the entries are based on events in Hadley’s life, large and small, we also use some days to focus on a short-term goal, like the articulation of a certain sound or learning to categorize objects.
12. Focus on parenting goals. Once I realized how important these books were to Hadley, I found ways to use them for my own purposes. We have included entries on how to be a good friend, bad behavior, what to do when you have a cold, and how to wash your hands. We’ve also highlighted good decisions and behavior: the day Hadley took her medicine all by herself or chose to speak calmly instead of screaming. It still amazes me how reading about herself and talking about the entry helps promote the desired behavior.
13. Don’t be afraid! You do not need to be the world’s best artist. You do not need to labor over each entry. If your drawings are unidentifiable, just label underneath. Your child will learn to distinguish one stick figure from another.
14. Use colored pencils. My early books were done in crayon, which quickly smeared and smudged. Colored pencils have worked well, especially those that can be erased as well. Markers sometimes bleed through the paper.
15. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Ultimately, these books are for your child. Pages will rip; just tape them up. Pictures may be scribbled upon; just talk about how once a picture is complete, we don’t add to them again. A page may even be torn out. It doesn’t matter. Your child will still love to read the experience book.
16. Record those heartwarming moments. My favorite entry is a drawing I did of a bright full moon rising over a pond, where the moon is just over the tops of tall pine trees. Hadley noticed the moon on a drive home one night and we talked about it for 20 minutes. It’s a moment that we may have otherwise forgotten, but now whenever she sees a full moon, Hadley reminds me of that one night.
17. It’s all about talking. It doesn’t matter what you say about each entry when reviewing them with your child for the umpteenth time. Your child will learn about the nuances of language if you talk naturally about each one. How boring if you always say the exact same thing on each page. This isn’t a story! Ask questions of your child. Mention a memory you have of that same experience. Use it as a way to launch into an activity. Let them do the reminiscing.
18. It’s all about reading. The Experience Book is a great early reading tool. Write clearly and carefully so your child isn’t trying to translate your scrawl. When your child begins to sight read, use the known words in the experience book to reinforce the learning.
19. Make it their own. At some point, the child can assume the responsibility of the book. This can be a fun activity, especially if the parents have modeled it as being something fun to do. Let them take on the ownership; this might mean that the book looks very different or is made from different materials. Let them run with it. Some families have the Experience Book morph into a school book that is shared between family and teacher or a book that reinforces teaching themes presented in the classroom.
20. Have fun! If creating an Experience Book is becoming too burdensome, take a giant step back. Find a way to make it manageable. It is quite possible to have several children, a fulltime job, a calendar full of activities and still produce a great Experience Book.

The Experience Book has been an integral part of Hadley’s development. I really can’t think of another tool that we have used that has been more effective in developing and fine-tuning language themes for her. I may still gripe about it, but it is worth every bit of effort that I expend.

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