Make the Most of Story Time: Tips for When, Where and What to Read to Young Children

Published on in Health Tip of the Week

Mom reading to child You may put off reading to your young child until both of you are already in a “wind-down” phase — right before naptime or at the end of the day. But don’t wait for wind-down: Be proactive about the pockets in your day when you can create calm with a quick read. A book is like a relaxation genie — open it up for a few moments of reading with your child and everyone feels better. Plus, reading encourages bonding and language development in your child.

The key is to carry around this magic wherever you go — a book in your diaper bag, stroller or purse — so you have it handy the moment your child needs a positive distraction. Maybe you’re transitioning from the playground to the car, and you want to help your child settle down. Or you’re taking 15 minutes to grab coffee, and your child is getting antsy in the stroller. And think of all of those “waiting rooms” in your week — at the doctor’s office, at the bus stop, or on the sidelines of an older child’s soccer game. A book on hand can transform a stressful moment.

Twenty years ago, The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia initiated the Reach Out and Read program at several of our primary care locations. Through this nationally acclaimed nonprofit program, a pediatrician or nurse practitioner gives a book to a child at every checkup from 6 months to 5 years of age and talks to caregivers about the importance of reading early and often.

Trude Haecker, MD, medical director of Reach Out and Read at CHOP, stresses the importance of the entire family coming together to read. “We’ve found Reach Out and Read parents are four-times more likely to read aloud to their children,” says Dr. Haecker. “Research shows when you read aloud to babies and young children, it helps promote brain development. That can then lead to earlier language acquisition skills and higher literacy and reading comprehension once the child goes to school.”

Dr. Haecker outlines how certain topics and types of books can deliver age-specific benefits. Use these helpful hints to select which books to pop in your bag, and you’ll be ready to read with your child anytime, anywhere.

Reading with babies

Books that highlight games like peek-a-boo and pat-a-cake where you can be playful and say your baby’s name are ideal. Your child loves to hear her name called, especially in such a singsong, fun-loving way. This gets her engaged in the rest of the language heard as well.

Pictures of everyday objects, like a bottle or ball, and especially pictures of other babies are also delightful at this age. Keep pointing to the objects and naming them. And a cloth or board book is best since it lets your child explore the world in the way she wants, which sometimes means picking up the book and chewing it.

Reading with young toddlers (between 1 and 2 years)

Books that highlight everyday activities, like sleeping, eating or playing, are often the most engaging. Although your child may wander away for a bit, he’ll likely return and want the same book read to him for the umpteenth time. This is great because reading the same book over again helps with language development. A book with a few words works best because your child is practicing sounds and progressing from two- to four-word phrases.

Reading with older toddlers (between 2 and 3 years)

Books that emphasize rhyming and repetition are best for language development. At this age, your child is learning two to four words per day. And although reading Dr. Seuss’s ABC for the 100th time may not seem like fun, indulging your child’s wish for her favorite books (and letting her turn the pages at her own pace) helps her learn through repetition and memorization.

You can keep the books fresh by asking lots of questions about the pictures she sees: “Where is the dog?” “What color is that?” Your child will start to repeat the parts of the book she likes best. Also, an older toddler likes routines — you can make the waiting room a reading experience on par with bedtime.  

Reading with preschoolers (between 3 and 5 years)

Books that describe experiences your child can relate to — whether it be school, daycare, or new friendships — are ideal subject matter at this age. Your child becomes most engaged in the reading process when you ask him to tell the story — what happens next? Or, what do you think happens next?

Also, a preschooler may recognize letters and numbers. It’s a great learning opportunity for you to engage with your child by highlighting letters in his name or  pictures that begin with the same sound. An older sibling makes a great reading partner at this fun reading age, too!

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