Some Thoughts on Reading with Infants and Toddlers
Everyone says you should read to your baby, that reading to them will magically create a love of reading and form an inseparable bond between parent and child. I suppose this is generally true, but I do think there are other ways to develop a healthy reader, as well as ways to squash a love of reading no matter the number of books you have read to them. From what I understand of childhood development, children are imitative. If you love to read, then they are more likely to love reading. If you surround them with books, then they are more likely to pick one up and see what it says. If you yourself embrace reading as an important aspect of your own life, then your child is more likely to do likewise. So, by all means, if you want to read Chaucer to your infant, go ahead. It won’t hurt anything. But if you have an infant anything akin to mine, who is grabbing and ripping and won’t sit still while you read him poetry, do not despair. This is not the only way to nurture a love of reading.
When reading with your child, work on skills one at a time. You might focus on turning one page at a time before you concern yourself with the story on every page, or you might spend time naming the objects throughout the book either before or after reading the story. You can point out letters and words to your child, so they begin to relate the symbols to a meaning. The activities you can do with a book are endless.
You might use reading time as a way to practice waiting, a skill I have not yet mastered myself. Waiting is the hardest! Give your child plenty of ways to practice successfully so when they are grown they will be able to employ patience. Reading is one of the best, because waiting to turn the page is such a short wait, just the right length of time for the littles to practice without becoming frustrated.
Selecting Books for Infants and Toddlers
As a person with rather small financial means, I have to be a bit choosy in what I spend my money on. I can’t just go out and buy the whole set of something because it was shiny and caught my eye. My book collection consists largely of books from the dollar bin and books that were given to us. But some things are worth eating beans and rice for. In that vein, I have developed a list of categories for ensuring a balanced library for the first few years of your child’s life. These are the books that your child will reach for again and again, and will fill them with wonder and joy.
Sensory Stimulating Books
For the newborn and infant, books are a sensory experience. The feel of the pages, the sounds the book makes when it falls on the floor, the taste of the cardboard. When you hold your infant and read to them, they are experiencing massive sensory stimulation. They feel your arms around them, hear your voice and heart, smell your natural scent. Their intellect is being engaged through hearing language. It is not necessary to have specific items for stimulating an infant’s senses, since they are surrounded by sensory experiences in everyday life. Nonetheless, it is fun, and it is good for your own sanity as a parent to have some books that will not be destroyed by bending, chewing, and throwing.
The best books for baby to practice reading on their own are the Indestructables brand books. Babies can chew, bend, and throw to their hearts content, and the books are machine-washable. I don’t have any myself, but they sound wonderful.
Babies will also love books that have materials with various textures. The crinkly material that makes a crunchy sound was a favorite in our house. There are so many to choose from, you’ll have a hard time just choosing one. Jellycat Soft Books makes a line of books with tails. DK Publishing has the Touch and Feel series. As your baby gains gross and fine motor skills, they will be drawn to look through these books on their own as a stimulating independent play activity.
The newest thing in books for infants are the black and white books, based on research indicating that babies cannot see color when they are first born, and that they process high-contrast images best. Some examples include Black on White by Tana Hoben and Look, Look! by Peter Linenthal. I consider these optional, nice to have if you can afford them, but not necessary by any means.
Babies love babies! My son was most drawn to a book showing infants and toddlers through a typical day. Make sure to have at least one book with pictures of actual babies (i.e. not illustrations). Looking through this book will bring a smile to your child’s face, and joy to your heart.
Books without Words
Books without words invite creativity. You can make up a story for your baby, and when they are old enough to talk, they will tell you endless stories using the same book. Here is a list from Goodreads to get you started.
Your toddler will love books with flaps, levers, pop-ups, and buttons. Even better, since these books never seem to get old, you only need a few. One of my very favorite books when I was a child was Where’s Spot? by Eric Hill. We have a Poke-a-Dot! book that provides endless entertainment, as well as a slide-and-find version of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Eric Carle. Also, books with letters, numbers, and shapes to trace provide a good bridge to writing. We have A is for Apple by Georgie Birkett, and even though the boy isn’t tracing the letters yet, we have a grand time naming the objects under the flaps.
Books with pictures or drawings of objects are fun to look through when your child begins learning words. They will surprise you every time with new vocabulary! DK Publishing makes fabulous books in this category, with photographs of the actual objects. If your child wants to look through a book and name all of the objects rather than listen to you read the story, that works, too!
Poetry and Rhyme
Infants are drawn to rhyming language. They delight in the beauty of what they are hearing. Do not believe the voices that tell you infants cannot understand! They are human, and they are drawn to the same things all humans are. Poetry is one of those things. Even if you do not know what the words mean, you are drawn to great poetry and song, for instance when they are in a foreign language. The speaker knows the meaning, and you hear it in their voice, see it in their face. Your baby is the same way. They have not yet developed a full vocabulary, but they have an intense understanding of your mood and tone.
Reading, reciting, or singing poetry to your infant also helps develop phonological sense, an important step in learning how to read. The ways sounds fit together in their native language is conveyed to them through rhyme.
For other categories I would be content with a few inexpensive books to own, while supplementing from the library. For this category, I would hoard some of my money and purchase the truly great books. I received Eloise Wilkin’s Poems to Read to the Very Young from my father. It is a gorgeous book with a variety of verse about subjects engaging to young children. I still want to own A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Lois Stevenson and Poems and Prayers for the Very Young by Martha Alexander. (I love old books!)
For more recent publications, consider Susan Boynton’s books. But not the Hippopotamus is an entertaining read for any age; my friend completing her PhD in English was riveted to the last page. Dinosaur Roar! is a great book for exaggerating speech and adding action with your child.
Whatever you choose, new or old, fancy or plain, the verse that you read to your child while they are young will sit in their hearts forever.
Last, but certainly not least, are the story books. These are the books that you collect slowly over the years. Your infant may not have patience for long stories, but if you persist and do not shame them, they will grow into the books you have selected. Books by Eric Carle, such as The Very Hungry Caterpillar and The Very Busy Spider, are good staples. Corduroy by Don Freeman is a classic. Margaret Wise Brown has penned multiple classics, such as Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny. There are far too many wonderful children’s stories that can be found as board books to list them all here. For more ideas, look at Ambleside Online’s Year 0 Booklist, Before Five in a Row, and Sonlight’s Preschool Curriculum.