When my children were young, one of the most common questions I heard from other parents while waiting for our kids at the school gate was ‘how can I get my child excited about reading?’ My response invariably was ‘I wish I could get mine to stop reading so much and get outdoors and play!’ All three of my children were, and still are, avid readers and lovers of books from an early age. I guess I must have done something right in the area of encouraging a love of reading, so here are some of the things I did around books and reading when my kids were little.
I don’t remember making an actual decision to work towards raising children who loved books but I do remember reading somewhere that it is never too early to introduce babies to books. Because I enjoy reading myself, and love nothing better than the opportunity to get lost in the storyline of a really good novel, this was never going to be difficult.
So, from when they were a few months of age, I would sit with my babies on my knee and read from simple children’s books. Of course, they didn’t understand the words at this age, but they did seem to enjoy hearing the rhythm of the words and looking at the bright pictures. As they got older, I would choose books with few words and lots of visual details and we would talk about what was in the pictures. Comprehension of what is being read is an important skill is education and so talking about the story as you read or after the book is finished helps the child to understand what the words mean and the story behind the written words.
One of my favorite memories is when I was pregnant with my second child and suffering terribly from morning sickness. My husband left at 5.30 am for work and I would get up early with him and race through some household chores before the nausea hit at about 9.00 am, like clockwork. My eighteen-month-old daughter would watch early morning kids TV and then we would sit and read several books together while I ate dry crackers to ease the nausea.
Children like the routine of being read to; they love hearing the same stories read over and over again; they gain comfort and reassurance from knowing what comes next and that the story never changes. Reading to preschoolers has emotional, developmental and educational benefits that set them up for later study, learning and entertainment. Language skills tend to be stronger in children who have been read to consistently, from an early age. It’s important that the story engages the child and that reading time is kept short to prevent boredom, especially with an active toddler. Reading stories is a great way of calming down and settling before putting a child to bed.
While I encouraged my kids to respect books, I tried not to get too precious about them when the children were little. Books have to be freely accessible to babies and toddlers if they are to develop a love of reading. Cloth books are great for babies as their little fingers can turn the pages easily and the cloth doesn’t damage like paper in uncoordinated hands. Board books are great for toddlers as they are stronger than paper and stand up to the rough treatment dished out by this age group. Any books that were expensive or better quality that I didn’t want damaged were kept on a shelf, out of reach of little ones. These special books were taken down when requested and read to the child.
I discovered early on that it was important to provide books that are of interest to an early reader. When the child starts school and learns to read, the school probably provides readers that are appropriate to different levels of reading ability in that grade. My son had an advanced reading age quite early and the books in the classroom held no interest for him and he started to lose interest in reading. His teacher suggested I buy some books on topics that interested him and recommended a couple of excellent children’s bookstores, where I found staff who were very knowledgeable and helpful.
We joined the local library when my second child was born to give an extra dimension to life for my daughter, who was not yet two. She was open-mouthed at the number of books on display and quickly selected a big pile to take home. I encouraged the children to only choose two or three books each library visit so that we had time to read each one several times. Toddlers choose books by their covers and also by their size, I discovered; apparently (according to one two year old) small books don’t hold as many words! Library books were also kept on a high shelf to help prevent accidental damage.
Talking to other parents at the school gate, I discovered that kids were more likely to be excited about reading if they saw their parents read. Books have always been visible and accessible in our home and education experts would suggest that this is a vital part of a child’s interest in reading. The importance of reading to young children on a daily basis seems to me to be the key in the development of a love of books.