Reading to the Reluctant Toddler

Posted by Shari Robertson on

By: Elizabeth Redhead Kriston, MS/CCC-SLP
“Carter won’t sit for stories. He just wants to turn the pages and toss the book. I don’t even leave books out for him because he rips them when I am not looking.” This lament is heard over and over from the parents of reluctant toddlers. They want to share books with their tots but struggle with making story time productive. Having worked with this age group for over fifteen years I have devised some strategies that really work. We know how important it is to read to our young kids. Some research even supports starting to read to them while they are in the womb. However, knowing that we should read and making reading time enjoyable and productive can be two very different things.

If your family is anything like mine, you have at least one kid who can’t get enough time with books, that precocious child who brings books constantly, thrusting them at you to get you to read to them. Often times they gravitate to just one book. In my house it was Go Dog Go by Dr. Seuss. I read that book so many times that just seeing a dog in a car makes me breakout into a sweat. As much as I grew to loathe that book, after our thrice daily readings for months on end, I realized that by participating in this ritual, which my daughter insisted upon, she learned to read at the young age of three.
Conversely, my second child abhorred reading. Even to this day, she struggles with finding a love for books. She knows she should read. She gushes to all that will listen about her mother, the author. She is surrounded by books and people who read. Yet, she cannot find the passion within. It is frustrating that my daughter cannot find joy from reading, from immersing herself into the lives and places and fantasies that books offer. I wish I knew then what I know now. When she was an infant and toddler I could have done more to make books tempting and not so intimidating. If I had, I’d like to think she would be more enamored with the written word.

If you have a young child who refuses to read, I offer you these suggestions as a way to make books appealing or at least nonthreatening. First, start young. With my first child who was a bit fussy and needed to be held in the BabyBjorn carrier, I read to her from the complete works of Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne as we walked in circles around the house. She was a captive audience and too young to comment on the complexity of the book.

Second, choose age appropriate books. As she got older and calmed a bit, we moved toward brief stories offered in sturdy board books. Our favorite was But Not the Hippopotamus by Sandra Boynton.

Third, contain again. Once your little ones get more active, seize the opportunities to read to them as they are naturally contained. For example, if they are in the highchair for mealtime, read to them. Bath time is a good time too if they are safely seated in a bath chair or can sit up without your support (you might want to choose vinyl books for this suggestion).

Fourth, read to them while they are playing quietly. As your child stacks blocks, puts a puzzle together, or pushes her trains around the track, sit nearby and read. It is OK if they are not snuggled in on your lap. The words and concepts they are exposed to while being read to are invaluable for their brain development. Chances are they will become curious and sneak over to take a peek. Not to mention that taking away the expectation that they must sit for a story makes it less combative and more natural for them.

Fifth, be silly and expressive when you read. The more animation and intonation you use, the more you will draw your child into the story. They will want to participate with the book and you if it is fun. Sixth, pair toys with the book. Read books that contain your child’s favorite TV or movie characters and bring out the toys you bought them (you know you have Paw Patrol and Thomas the Tank Engine toys in the toy box) and act out the stories. Or, gather some toys for a favorite picture book and incorporate them as you read. When story time becomes play time, kids are more apt to attend and interact.

My biggest point of pride comes from using these suggestions while reading my book Pants on Ants. This story has just enough silly in it to keep the attention of any reluctant toddler when read with lots of emotion and animation. In fact, numerous times upon bringing it out in a therapy session I was told by a parent, “My child will not sit for stories.” I accepted that challenge and read to the child in spite of that warning. The first reading usually started with the child across the room playing with his favorite truck. After the second or third page, he was peeking over the top of the book to see the illustrations. Eventually, he ended up in my lap as I finished the book. Then we pulled out the flashcards from the pocket in the book. We named and talked about the pictures. All the while, mom looked stunned at what just happened.

Then the most amazing thing occurred, the child requested the book to be read again and again. By just reading the book incorporating a few of the strategies listed above, the toddler went from a reluctant reader to actively participating and requesting a story. This scenario happens nearly every time I share a book with a child no matter how resistant they have been to books in the past.

The list is not exhaustive, I am sure you have lots of good ideas too. I hope you share them with us in the comments section. Just remember, if we make story time fun; if we choose books that are developmentally appropriate; and if we read daily to our kids, they may not learn to love books, but they will become smarter. No matter what, do not ever give up on teaching your child to love a good story.

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