“When a baby starts to move, that’s what’s interesting [to him],” says Susan Straub, author of Reading with Babies, Toddlers and Twos. Reading a book? Not so much. “Sitting quietly on mom’s or dad’s lap isn’t really as delicious as climbing over something or practicing walking or climbing stairs or chasing the cat,” Straub says.
Can you convince your little rambler that snuggling up with Dr. Seuss is just as much fun as dumping out the kitty litter?
9 tips for keeping toddlers interested in storytime
Carefully select sleepier times. “Babies do get tired,” Straub says. “There are moments — while they’re eating or after a bath — when it’s a slowed-down time.” Have a book at the ready, by your toddler’s bed or highchair, when you’ll have a few seconds more of their attention.
Seek surprises. Toddlers don’t need books with lots of light-up noises or tunes. They’ll be more intrigued by titles requiring a little dexterity: lift-the-flaps, twist-the-knob, push-and-pull books with surprises hidden inside. As with a puzzle, toddlers will spend a little more time trying to understand how a book works. “If you’ve got a child able to manipulate books, it goes a far distance,” Straub says. “Then, you’re just maintaining that awareness of how a book opens, how you turn a page,” and what’s between the covers.
Try book-related games. “Anything that happens with books is reading preparedness,” Straub says. Create a deceptively simple game of “pass the book”: Ask your toddler to pass you a book, thank him, then pass one back. Or try peek-a-boo, covering and uncovering parts of a book with your hand. Straub says this one works well when you’re waiting in the doctor’s office or in line — just take a magazine and say, “Where’s President Obama? There he is!”
Read together as a family. Integrate older and younger siblings, suggests kid-book author Lorie Ann Grover, a blogger at Reader Totz, a site dedicated to board books. “Read the full text for the older and allow pauses on each spread for the younger to identify objects of interest or ask questions,” Grover says. Family reading time cuts down on sibling rivalry and creates a family tradition you can sustain into the preteen years.
Go off-book and improvise. “Feel free to deviate from the text if a wiggly, vocal toddler would rather identify imagery and turn pages,” Grover says. “Once the book is perused, the child may settle down for the full story.” Take a Richard Scarry book and have your toddler find the car, cat or king drawing — anything he knows the name of.
Play with your books. Straub suggests seeing books as toys. If your toddler is into trucks and cars, Straub suggests building a “road” out of board books for her vehicles to motor along. Along the way, open up a title or two and point out a tow truck. Alternately, build a tiny house or tower out of books. “Enjoy it,” Straub says, and points out that you’re helping baby see books as fun, entertaining objects. “If you don’t get to the text today, you’ll get there eventually.”
Act it out. Dramatize activities you see in books, from roaring like a lion to going on a bear hunt. Straub recommends interactive titles, such as Little Yoga: A Toddler’s First Book of Yoga, where you’ll see photos, then get your turn to pose; but truly, the two of you can act out any basic plotline.
Pick a favorite topic. Toddlers love books about going to bed, potty training, siblings, family, animals and songs. For example, many of Raffi’s songs have been turned into toddler-ready titles, and other folk classics are available in picture format as well. Closely watch your toddler develop interests and ask your local librarian for fiction and nonfiction on the topic.
Write your own. As a family therapist, Rebecca Hoyt of Seattle wrote books featuring her young clients, to explain difficult situations and prep them for transitions. “They loved starring in their own stories,” Hoyt says. Now that she’s at home, Hoyt makes books for her 18-month-old son and incorporates photos.
“It helps me to remember all the big, little, funny and important things that happened, as I write the story,” she says. One line reads: “And just as we rolled onto the ferry, Owen barfed strawberry yogurt all over the car. … ”
It’s no surprise that Owen looks over his books again and again.
A former children’s librarian, Lora Shinn learned a lot of clever new tricks while researching this piece.