In advance of reading first words, there is so much pre-reading learning that needs to take place. For very young children, or those with additional needs, it’s important that you think about how best to interest your child in the concept of ‘books’ so that when the time comes for formalising their skills, they are truly engaged.
It is never too early to begin sharing books with your child. In the initial stages, the process is much more about physical closeness, warmth, soothing and ultimately building relationships. I used to find reading my ‘Boxing News’ magazine aloud to my baby had dual benefits – he was calm and settled and I got to catch up on the latest action! As your child develops, they will generally be more interested in the visuals and increasingly the textures and ‘feel’ of books. The introduction of the ‘That’s not my…’ series of books 20 years ago has been instrumental in changing the mindset of what books for very young children and those with additional needs can achieve (they have now sold over 20 million copies worldwide!).
From this stage, typically developing children will likely go on to enjoy listening to short stories, maybe even supporting with turning the pages. You may be asked to read the same book literally hundreds of times! It is sometimes hard for us to grasp how a child doesn’t become bored of the same story, but I find it a useful reminder of the importance of repetition in learning. As a parent of two young children, I try to never say no to two things - a request for a story, or a request for fruit & veg (even if dinner is ready in 5 minutes).
The ideas that follow are for the children who aren’t yet ready for the sharing of a story in a typical sense. They might not want to sit down to listen to a story, the likelihood being, they don’t see the benefit – or they might feel that it’s much more interesting to continue with what they were doing already. How can we engage these children in story time?
1) Sensory stories – on the previously mentioned topic of textures in books, sensory stories provide more than just visual and auditory stimulus. Texture in books is one thing but imagine how much fun a story about rain would be if you were also covering your child with water from a sprayer? Or how much more interesting would a story about baking be if the ingredients were actually there to smell and taste. The best bit is, you don’t need to wait around for the perfect rain or baking themed story to land – just create your own! This isn’t as crazy a suggestion as you might first think: let your imagination run free; think of your child in particular - what would they really like to hear? I challenge you to have a go - it’s easier than you think.
2) Personalised stories – following on from the theme, this is where we consider a child’s interests and create a story just for them. Don’t worry about presentation – I promise your child will love your illustrations. You could spend a few pounds on a laminator if you are going to give this a proper go – you can usually get one for £20-ish these days. This way your stories will last much longer. I find the best starting point for personalised stories is familiar photographs. Very young children and those with additional needs are massively interested in the people who are closest to them. There doesn’t even need to be a story line – the book could just be called ‘All About Me’ or ‘This Is My Daddy’. You could add photos, familiar smells, materials to feel (the story might have a bag alongside it that you pull items from – this is Daddy’s shirt, it smells of Daddy’s aftershave etc). If you laminate a few pages, you could hole punch them and add string. This could be a good way to introduce page turning. Alternatively, you can just sit down together and look at some familiar photographs and talk about the people/things that are in them. Often children just want to hear the calmness in your voice as you sit together – even if they don’t understand the actual words.
3) Massage stories – The Story Massage Programme (https://www.storymassage.co.uk/the-story-massage-programme/) is a brilliant concept that works really well for children with significant learning needs, or young children. The storyteller uses repetitive movements on the child’s body as they tell the story. There are many pre-written examples but again, there is an opportunity to create stories that your child would be interested in. These stories are great for children who find it hard to sit still for a book or have lots of energy. The calming nature of the massage means that they are often able to sit for longer and partake in a story session. There are some nice examples online that you can follow, so you can just focus on the actual massage initially rather than trying to read at the same time.
4) Musical books – there’s nothing new about books that make sounds, but as with anything, improved technology means that they no longer need to take the same form as they used to. One of my baby daughter’s particular favourites at the minute is this:
Each page has imagery related to a famous piece of classical music, and the little foil buttons to activate the songs are very subtle within the page. This has meant that over recent months, my daughter has initially enjoyed having the buttons pressed for her, but now enjoys the challenge of finding the button and activating the music herself. Even better, if you press the button again the song stops – brilliant for cause and effect and early cognition skills. One additional bonus of a book of this type is that it increases the likelihood of your 4-year-old son saying something pretentious like ‘my favourite song is Spring by Vivaldi’ which happened in our home last week. A final perk of this style of book is that they are often board books and so are hard-wearing.
As with any aspect of learning for young children, if they aren’t engaging, it’s well worth trying something different until they do. If you keep forcing a ‘story time’ that isn’t interesting and might actually become upsetting, then it will make it even harder to engage with books further down the line. See if you can give some of these ideas a go.
Edited by Jules