Can't Stop, Won't Stop: Reading with Active Toddlers
Updated: Jul 29, 2021
Grace and I have had the opportunity to talk to a few different groups of parents since we launched Cosmic (almost a year ago—we turn one in October!). One topic that comes up in nearly every conversation with parents of toddlers: I know reading together at a young age is key, but how can my child reap the benefits if they can't even sit down long enough to finish a board book?
One of my biggest takeaways from my Montessori training is the connection between an active body and an active brain. While toddler parents can often feel discouraged by the results of recent studies regarding the benefits of reading, it's important to remember just what make these results so powerful. Books are a big part of the equation, but certainly not the whole story.
While finishing a book with kids at this age is key for closure (and other reasons I won't get into in this particular post), it's also important to read your child's body language. Are they extra-wiggly during story time because something else is holding their attention? Are you trying to read before bed and they're not tired enough? Overtired?
The really, truly important thing at this stage is to keep reading light. This means that if your child is having an especially hard time settling down, if they're clearly disinterested, or if their attention is irrevocably divided, it's time to put the book away. The most important thing is to keep books and reading fun and pressure-free beginning as early as possible.
Here are a few ways you can keep language development moving along when your little one is on the move:
Keep appropriate books accessible.
Your child should have books within reach—durable, tear-proof, nibble-proof, and possibly even waterproof books chosen just for them. Like all of us, children are more likely to choose books and reading as an activity if they have ready access, and a lifelong love of reading comes from hands-on experience with books. This article from 2014 quotes an incredible study led by University of Nevada-Reno sociologist Mariah Evans. Evans's study, which looked at 42 countries, found “home library size has a very substantial effect on educational attainment.”
This held true even after parents’ occupations and education level and family wealth were taken into account. What's more, the effect was consistently found in both rich and poor nations; in countries with economic systems that lead toward capitalism and socialism; and “in Asia as well as Europe and the Americas,” they add.
While this study quotes test scores as a main indicator of achievement, the abstract for the study asserts that "a key aspect of scholarly culture, the number of books in the family home, exerts a strong influence on academic performance in ways consistent with the cognitive skill hypothesis, regardless of the nation's ideology, political history, or level of development."
If your books are accessible, you can let your child choose the book. This is a great way to remind them the shelf is there, it's theirs, and that you're interested in reading what they want to read—a key to encouraging book lovers of all ages.
Choose books with an interactive element.
Catch your child's attention and keep them engrossed with rhythm, rhyme, song, and repetition. Books with tactile experiences such as textures to touch, mirrors to peek in, and flaps to lift are all excellent ways to get your child hooked on the book.
I was getting my bike tuned up a couple years ago when the person at the counter casually mentioned that bikes are a motor vehicle. I laughed, thinking they were joking, they didn't crack a smile. I asked, "Where's the motor?" They stared at me blankly, then said, "You're the motor."
So, parents, you're the motor. If you don't have a lift-the-flap, mirror-filled, waterproof popup book, the interactive element is... you. Try out voices! If there's a song in the text you don't know the tune to (this happens more than I would have expected, especially with older books), make the thing up and sing it out loud! If nothing else, it's hilarious. Worst case scenario, your child will tell you to stop and you'll know that wasn't the key. Oh, well. But, that leads us to:
Read with your child, not just to your child. If your child’s attention is beginning to wander–or if you’re approaching the six-billionth read of the same board book and need a shake-up purely for your own sanity–open conversation with your child about the story, especially the images. Engage them with questions about the book: “What’s happening in this picture? How do you think this character is feeling? What do you see that makes you say that?” Rich language is the key to language development, so even if your child has few words, they’ll benefit from hearing yours.
Rotate your shelf to keep it fresh.
If you're following any of the advice suggested by Mariah Evans's research, your shelves may be looking a little overgrown. This could be fun and inspiring for an older child, but it's potentially overwhelming for a child just being introduced to the concept of a book — or, even less helpful, the shelf could just become part of the scenery rather than a living part of the room.
For young children, keep the number of books accessible to them low. Notice which books they love, if they're curious about or drawn to any in particular, and swap out those that are consistently falling flat (for now). Those books will be fresh again when you pull them out of the closet in a couple months, and your child will likely be in a different place developmentally, too. Interests can change like the tides, so hold onto the "not right now" books.
Books are an incredible tool! Not only do they scaffold language learning, but sequential storytelling, empathy exercises, and stunning artwork are introduced between these two cardboard covers.
That being said... don't sweat it. Go to the library and take a swing at sitting for story time, then head to the park and talk about the birds you see. Read the ingredients on the cereal box, read out street signs as you walk around your neighborhood or drive down the highway. Tell stories out loud, ask your child questions, keep the conversation going! Approach books with an open mind and as much patience as you can muster, and keep making stories a part of your routine.