By Angela Zimmerman, Common Sense Media
When I opened the gates to screen time for my 2-year-old daughter, I was planning to limit it to airplanes and sick days. But with TV and tablets came a whole new colorful world that hooked my tot instantly, and her new word—"cartoons!"—became a constant refrain. Almost overnight, her obsession with books and our sweet ritual of reading became a distant memory to her little toddler brain. Screens offered something much more exciting.
I felt OK introducing screen time, especially since most of the time I snuggle up on the couch and watch with her (which is why I now know every single word of Moana), to make the TV time as interactive and educational as I can. And the apps we've let her play with are all highly rated for learning. But when it came time to reading books together, her previously enthusiastic interest was now drawn to a shape-shifting demigod voiced by the Rock.
I was worried. For me, books are more than fun and educational. They're a family tradition. My own lifelong passion for reading was sparked by my mother's nightly read-aloud sessions with me and my sister. We never skipped a night, and it was truly a highlight of my childhood. I may not follow every custom my mom handed down (like her tendency to embroider our names on anything she could stick a needle into), but I know that a love of books is worth preserving. I want my kid to treasure that magical reading time as much as I did growing up, despite the irresistible pull of singing animals, animated princesses, and sweeping soundtracks (seriously, it's hard to compete with Lin-Manuel Miranda).
So I had to dig deep to come up with extra-special reading experiences to compete with all that sparkly screen entertainment. My hope is that these tips and tricks will cultivate positive and passionate literacy habits she'll have the rest of her life.
Make it a daily ritual.
Every night, without fail, before my daughter heads to bed, we read at least two books together, usually more. On the nights she's wound up and super resistant to sleep, this routine puts her in a mellow mood and helps her relax. By the time I turn the first page, she's already heavy-lidded and sucking her thumb.
Let them pick.
Your kid is bound to have favorite books, and you will inevitably groan inwardly (and probably outwardly) when she asks you to read The Very Hungry Caterpillar for the 200th time. But it's those cherished favorites that will always comfort and entertain. (If we go for a third book, Mommy gets to pick. Otherwise we'd never rotate our library.)
Find a quiet, special space.
We used to read in the rocker next to her crib, but on those nights she didn't want to go to bed, she put up a fight just to enter her room. Then we used to read on the couch, but there are inevitably distractions—the basketball game is on, the dog is barking at the neighbors, there's music on the stereo. So I created our own special reading space on the bed in the guest room. It's stocked with pillows and blankets, and I light some candles and lay out the book selections on the bed with us. It's our insta-special reading spot! (It sure doesn't take much with a toddler.) You can do this anywhere you have enough room for two.
Don't freak out and completely eliminate screen time.
Once you've introduced TV and tablets to your toddler—and discovered his or her voracious appetite for it—you don't need to panic and pack it all in. Well-chosen, high-quality media has proven benefits and is fine when balanced with other activities. Try to be strategic with when, how often, and how much you let them imbibe.
Keep the selection fresh.
Hit the library regularly, and check out stuff by their favorite authors or in their preferred genres. Libraries are key, since you never know what they're going to like, and you don't want to shell out bucks for books they won't touch. Need recommendations? Check out some of Common Sense Media's fave books for toddlers.
Find print books with sensory experiences.
You can load up your Kindle or tablet with digital books when traveling, but let them enjoy the tactile experience of turning pages and touching different textures. My kid loves books with an interactive element, such as flaps and dials or scratch-and-sniff spots. Her favorites include Mama's Pajamas, which has an array of different fabrics, and Dance, which uses cardboard levers to make different animals dance.
Keep 'em all over.
We keep a few books in the car and a stack by the potty, and she gets to take one to bed every night. It may be overkill, but it gives her an opportunity to connect with books at every step. Studies have even shown that having lots of books at home can give kids a big boost in school.
Resist the begging with clever excuses.
When my kid gets really stuck on something and wants to do nothing but watch Frozen, I tell her Elsa and Anna are sleeping. She accepts that without question. Sure, it's a white lie, but it's for her own good (and the sanity of me and my husband). A lifelong love of reading is a gift you can give to your kids that they will carry forever. One day she'll thank me!
Common Sense Media is an independent nonprofit organization offering unbiased ratings and trusted advice to help families make smart media and technology choices. Check out our ratings and recommendations at www.commonsense.org.
It’s an easy trap to fall into: You tell your kid to read for 20 minutes and he can have extra video-game time. Or ice cream. Or something new and shiny. Yet when we reward our children for spending time with a book, we are focusing their intention away from the act of reading and from their own independence as readers. But is it really possible to create an atmosphere at home where reading is seen as its own reward?
“Yes!” says literacy expert Barbara Marinak, dean of the Division of Education at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, MD, and co-author, along with Linda Gambrell, of No More Reading for Junk. “Give children unlimited access to books and other material, see that their reading material is relevant, and give kids a choice about what, where, and when to read. And always, always talk about what you read.”
The best way to nurture a love of reading is to let children take ownership of that part of their lives, honor their choices, and share in the worlds opened up to them from reading.
How to Give Your Child Optimal Access
Research shows that more access to books—and an environment that supports reading—increases a child’s interest in reading. So providing a wealth of reading material at home is the place to start. Create a dedicated space for your child’s library. Kids’ interests change quickly, Marinak says; she suggests adding new titles from regular trips to the library or bookstore, and passing along books your child has finished reading. “It affords them a chance to share something they loved, which is a very empowering feeling,” she adds.
Give Kids a Voice
Educators agree: Children are more likely to be motivated to read when they choose their own books. In fact, choice, Marinak says, “is the single most powerful motivator for humans, period. Home is where kids can and should have limitless choice.” Beyond allowing children to choose what to read, give them the freedom to select where and when as well. Under the piano bench with the dog? Fine. Standing in the ocean with the waves lapping his ankles? No problem.
Because children can get overwhelmed reading texts that are too hard, and bored with those that are too easy, ask your child’s teacher to recommend books to add to your home library, including high-interest, moderately challenging options, as experts often suggest. If your child loves series, by all means let her read every last volume. Same thing with favorite authors. Ask questions like “How did number four compare to number three?” or “What do you think the author is going to do with that character in the next book?” Try to avoid yes/no answers; series, especially, invite good opportunities to compare and contrast.
Parents as Partners
Marinak doesn’t believe in mandating a set amount of time or number of pages children must read at home. If kids don’t naturally gravitate toward reading, she suggests reading with them. Crack open a cookbook and read a brownie recipe together while you bake. Read directions for a board game or DIY kit. Some readers need options, and parental company, to help them come around to finding their own pleasure in the written word.
Rewards for reading do not help children become motivated readers either, says Marinak, who wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on the topic. You may get a short-term result, but once a prize isn’t dangling, he won’t be motivated to do it again. “If you must reward your child for reading, offer an extra 10 minutes of read-aloud time before bed or go online and pick out a new book together. The best way to nurture a love of reading, however, is to let children take ownership of that part of their lives, honor their choices, and share in the worlds opened up to them from reading. Set the stage early, and your child is in for a lifetime of learning and pleasure.
Pam Abrams is a writer and mother of two who splits her time between the city and the country, and frequents the farmers’ markets in both locations.
I’ve never had parents say exactly these words to me when they come for a well-child visit for their six-month-old, but it’s what the look on their face more or less says. As a pediatrician, I participate in Reach Out and Read, a program that trains health-care providers to give exactly this kind of advice: spend time every day reading together with your children, starting when they’re infants.
It wouldn’t be a very good program, however, if we simply dispensed the advice on what to do and didn’t address how to do it. For many of you reading this, you may have had the advantage of being read to yourself, or of seeing others around you read to young children, giving you an idea of how to carry out this advice. But for others—you may not know what to do.
For many, being told to read aloud might remind us of grade school, where someone read exactly what it said on the page, and everyone else sat quietly and listened. That might work nicely for third-graders, but it’s unlikely that a mouth-everything-in-sight infant or a squirmy toddler is going to follow that plan. Some parents may, when faced with a seemingly unruly audience, assume that their young child doesn’t like being read to—and be discouraged from trying again.
The key is that reading to very young children follows different rules. I’m going to give you permission to not do some things:
- You don’t need to read every page
- You don’t need to read pages in any specific order
- And you don’t even need to actually read what it says on the page.
Let the child hold the book and manipulate it. This means she’ll turn pages back and forth, or go backward, or pick out random pages. She may even mouth it instead of looking at it. This is all normal behavior for an infant or toddler.
You certainly can (and should) point at things on the pages and name them. Even better, when your baby touches or points at something on his own, name it for him so he hears the word. This is also a great opportunity to elaborate a little: “Yes, it’s a boat. A red boat!”
This means you can pick out books that might even be “very advanced” in terms of reading level, because your focus will be mostly on the pictures. The book may even be in a language you don’t understand, but you can still enjoy the images together with your child.
Finally, don’t be discouraged if your child doesn’t wish to look at books for more than a few moments. Infants and toddlers have naturally short attention spans. Sometimes they might not be in the mood. It’s OK to move on to something else and try again at another time.
By allowing your child to control what’s being looked at and discussed, you’re more likely to maintain her interest. Don’t worry about the fact that you might never get to read the actual story. When she’s a little older, she’ll be more able to sit and listen to the story itself. What you’re building now is a comfort with books and the association of books with something she’ll treasure above all: your love and attention.
Dipesh Navsaria, M.P.H., M.S.L.I.S., M.D., father of two, is an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. He practices primary-care pediatrics at a federally qualified health center in South Madison....
“Some of the best memories are made in flip-flops,” says writer Kellie Elmore. But, sadly, all good things—even summer—must end. Fall is hinting at its arrival, and already it’s back to school.
As your kids swap their flip-flops for new school shoes and you begin to reinstate bedtimes, try putting daily reading back into your routine. These ideas will not only help beginning readers get their heads back in the game, but they’ll also help you continue to make great memories—with or without flip-flops.
- Everybody loves an audience—especially a furry one. Have your kids read aloud to pets, or even to a captive audience of stuffed animals.
- Let your child help you make a special reading spot—a cozy reading nook where he or she can settle in and read without distractions. Try draping a sheet over two chairs and adding some pillows to the floor.
- Declare it Laugh-a-Lot Day. Dig out the joke books and take turns reading jokes to each other. Use funny voices, or read while holding your nose. Bring out the comic books, and pore over the Sunday newspaper “funnies” together.
- Read aloud together. Take turns reading sentences, or pages.
- Create a reader’s theater. Assign yourself a character. Your child reads the narration, and you read the dialogue. Enlist the help of older siblings if other character voices are needed.
- Use technology to make reading fun. Record or video your child reading a story, encouraging the making of sound effects. Then watch him or her enjoy hearing it or watching it played back. For even more positive reinforcement, share the recording with an appreciative relative.
- Compose the beginning of a story, and let your child make up an ending for it. Add the child’s ending, your author bylines, and a title your child invents. Then sit back and let your child read the whole story back to you.
- For kids who find it hard to sit still, embed some reading practice into active games. Use sidewalk chalk to write sight words on a hopscotch board. Each time your child hops on a word, he or she reads it. Similarly, make a word version of Twister.
- Create a little suspense. Choose a few library books you think your child would like. Wrap each one in a brown paper bag, and write one sentence on each bag that hints at what the book’s about. At various times during the day or week, let your child choose a book. Have fun with the element of surprise.
- Instead of reading a bedtime story to your children when you tuck them in, let them tuck YOU in and read a story to you.
- Extend bedtime by 20–30 minutes—on the condition that your child use the time for reading. For added fun, darken the room and read by flashlight.
Christine French Cully is the editor in chief of Highlights for Children, Inc., where she is responsible for shaping the editorial direction of all the magazines, online content and products the company develops for children and their families. She plays a strategic, ongoing role in the development of the Highlights vision and brand across all markets and channels/around the globe. Cully, a mother of two, resides in Honesdale, Pennsylvania.