Ailsa Adams, columnist and mother to George and Wilf, aged five and two explains why reading with your small children is still important in 2020.
As the digital world encroaches on our lives further, it is still important to read physical books with young children and babies. The benefits are far reaching for both the child and yourself and as the phrase says: “There is no App to replace your lap.”
When to start?
It is never too early according to Dr Karen Coats, the Director of the Centre for Research in Children’s Literature at Cambridge University: “As early as the 1970s, researchers have found that infants can recognise a text that has been read to them repeatedly while they were still in the womb, within hours after birth.”
Sounds like the perfect excuse to read your old favourite children’s book aloud to your bump with a hot cup of tea, all in the name of education.
Benefits for your child
There are so many benefits to reading with young children, the obvious one being language development. Dr Karen expands: “When babies and children are read to, they hear many more and different words than people use in everyday conversation. They also hear these words in clusters and expressions such as ‘handsome prince’ or ‘big, bad wolf’ so they are getting a sense of context.”
One book a day prior to starting school at the age of four will mean the child has listened to at least 1460 stories. The impact to literacy is so far reaching, not only for competence but also for enjoyment, attention span and focus. “You can tell who has been read to and who hasn’t when teaching a child to read and it alters their enjoyment of it, it can be much less of a chore. If you are in a good routine of reading with your child, it will also be easier to start hearing them read to you every day after school,” says Sharon Clarke, a primary school teacher in London and Lincolnshire for 35 years and mother to six children.
Another benefit is that it is an easy way of bonding with your baby and can form an essential part of a good bedtime routine. If you are struggling to get a child to go to sleep, instilling a routine can really help with the winding down process, getting the book out is the signal it is time for bed. A warning from Dr Karen though: “Be aware that for babies, a book is something to explore with their mouths, so you want to make sure the books you share aren’t too precious.”
The best part is while they are a baby, you can pick what you read to them.
Benefits for you
It is an excuse to escape reality for ten minutes a day while you delve into the depths of make-believe. Dr Karen feels passionately about dedicating time: “For that space of time, phones are put away, TVs turned off, and the pair share attention without the distractions.
“Most books for children are enjoyable in ways that adults might have forgotten such as the rhythm of the text, the humour or the appeal of the images.”
It also impacts on our mental and overall health in a positive way. “Rhythmic language can actually lower blood pressure, for instance, and reading picture-books and stories that require the creation of mental images integrates neural activity, making the reader feel more coherent after a day of stressful demands,” says Dr Karen.
Does it matter what you read?
Not really, but some books are more beneficial than others. Dr Karen offers advice on what is the most beneficial: “Everything starts with poetry, so read lots of poetry. This will give them an ear for their language and help them develop confidence in speaking as well, as children’s poems are written to be read aloud.”
At a young age enjoyment is also vital, there is no point reading Aristotle to a two-year-old if they (and you) are not interested. A book they can get involved with will have them reaching for it again and again from the bookshelf. “Around 10 months old I really noticed the effect reading was having on the boys. Rex started to pick the books off the shelf he wanted me to read to him, showing favouritism to certain pages too,” says Isabella Hicks, a reader and mother of three boys aged five, three and two.
Dr Karen agrees: “Give them lots of opportunities to choose their own books and do some exploratory work on your own to find books that present them with a range of artistic styles and diverse stories.”
What if my baby won’t sit still?
Start small with short stories and keep building it up, taking breaks to discuss it with older toddlers. Dr Karen believes the talking around the book is as important as the book itself: “Talk, talk, talk about what you’re reading, you’ll be surprised with what they noticed that you didn’t.”
The last story read to Wilf is in his bed, so he is laying down and engaged with the story. It is a different type of reading than daytime when he is pointing at pictures and turning the pages.
“Reading with toddlers both on and off your lap is a great start to getting them used to sitting on the carpet for story-time at school,” says Sharon Clarke.
The verdict is clear. Let’s reach for our favourite books and have a snuggle for some essential, educational bonding time, complete with lots of obligatory head sniffs, to soak up the adorable baby smell.