Young reader knows his presidents

Jaden Wilkins has appeared on local and national TV reciting the presidents of the United States in order, backward and randomly, complete with their political affiliation and vice presidents.

He memorized the information from a placemat his mother bought him and from books and other sources he studied on his own.

Jaden is 5 years old and a kindergartner at Rosa Parks Elementary School in Lexington.

While his mother, Sandi Wilkins, credits Jaden with having a photographic memory to some degree, she believes all children possess a special blessing that can be encouraged through reading.

"I read something somewhere that said, 'When a child learns to read, he then reads to learn,'" Wilkins said. "Suddenly they are teaching you things. I love that quote."

Jaden was a guest earlier this year on the daytime TV show, Live with Regis and Kelly starring Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa, and he has traveled to Florida and Atlanta, defeating all challengers with his quick recall of U.S. Presidents.

And it all started because his mother taught him and his two older brothers, to read by the time they were 3.

Jaden's curiosity about presidents began last year when President Barack Obama's historic campaign and victory blanketed the news, his mother said. She took him to the library, found books on presidents for him to read and bought him a placemat featuring the presidents and various facts.

"While I was running my kids to football and around, he was in the car reading," Wilkins said.

By Christmas, when the family was vacationing in Florida, Jaden's 11-year-old brother, Jameson, told his parents, Sandi and Phil Wilkins, that Jaden knew a lot of information.

"We all said, 'Who taught him?'," Sandi Wilkins said. "He said, 'I taught myself. I read it in my book.'"

They soon realized he knew the heaviest president, the tallest and skinniest, the dates of their service and which ones are carved into Mount Rushmore.

The proud parents filmed Jaden going through his paces and put the video on YouTube ( and

for out-of-state relatives to see. Local TV station WLEX-TV saw it and featured him on the news.

From there, the various regional and national programs called on Jaden. He's been to New York twice. All because of a love of reading.

Although she is a stay-at-home mother now, Sandi Wilkins said she worked full-time with her two older sons, Jameson and 14-year-old Jordan. Still, she said, busy parents can find time to teach their children to read.

"I started by teaching the two older boys their ABCs when they were in the high chair," she said. "I would teach them one block a week. 'Hand me the A' or 'Hand me the blue A.' They were still in diapers."

First and foremost, she read to her children daily.

Study after study has found that reading aloud to children helps them develop better language and literacy skills and to develop a love of reading by the time they enter school. A study published last year in the Archives of Disease in Childhood said how parents read to children counts as well.

Let it be interactive, allowing the children to ask questions and look at pictures and talk about what they have read or heard. Use different voices for the characters. Make it fun.

Wilkins said she promised with her first child that she would drop whatever she was doing and read to them if they came to her with a book.

"I have not broken that promise," she said.

But reading is not just sitting with a book. Opportunities to improve literacy are everywhere. And they are free. On visits to the grocery store, Wilkins would ask her boys to write items for the list. Parents can show their children an egg carton and ask them to write the word egg on the list or show them a milk carton and ask them to write the word milk.

"You are getting your work done," she said, "but they are learning."

Once in the store, Wilkins said, parents can ask the child take the lead and find the eggs. "They get such a sense of value of being valuable to you," she said. "And suddenly you don't have a child in the store who is crying and doesn't want to be there."

When doing laundry, "tell them to sort the laundry by color," Wilkins said. "Have them push the start button. Tell them to be the leader."

When they traveled for Jaden's guest appearances, Wilkins hands the boy the boarding pass and asks him to find where they should be going.

In every other way, mind you, Jaden is a very active 5-year-old. He is learning the violin and he loves sports. That's important, too, Wilkins said, in molding a well-rounded human being.

"Feed their curiosity with books," she said, adding she's not a child-rearing expert. "Don't think they are too young to do it."