“At night when sunshine goes away,
And it's too dark for me to play,
I like to come inside, and look
For new friends in a story book.”
Helping your child cultivate a reading habit can work wonders for her. Bedtime stories are a wonderful way of fostering this habit. The experience of trips into imaginary worlds shared with your child before she drops off to sleep each night will prove truly valuable, not only for your child’s growth and learning, but for you as a parent as well.
A book has the power to bring alive characters, their lives, conversations and emotions. It captures the imagination of the reader. A bedtime story is particularly enthralling. From a child’s perspective, the bedtime story is a very special element in his life. These stories are something to be looked forward to at the end of the day, when he’s tired, and snuggles up in bed with his favourite soft toys. They enable him to connect with a different set of ‘friends’ along with Papa or Mamma as they read to him from the books about these friends.
The neuroscience behind reading
Neuroscientists have conducted brain imaging studies of children while they are reading or being read to. Interestingly, they found that the parts of the brain which get activated while reading about a certain activity are the same as those which get activated while performing that same activity. For example, when a child reads, ‘Aman, catch the ball’, and when he catches a ball in real life, the regions of the brain which are activated are the same. This goes to show how connected we are to characters when reading about them, and also demonstrates the power of imagination.
According to the 2012 study, “How Reading Books Fosters Language Development around the World,” by David K. Dickinson of Vanderbilt University published in Child Development Research, reading or being read to at a young age helps a child learn a language faster. It helps build vocabulary quickly too, as new words are encountered in every book that is read.
A bedtime story also exercises the child’s listening skills and helps build upon his attention span as well. While tucked up in bed, feeling cosy and loved, your child learns to pay attention in a fun way.
For your young child this could mean smoother adaptation into a school environment. Once she is old enough to go to school, it will help her in her classroom reading comprehension activity as well.
Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, the pioneer of the Social Development theory, spoke of the importance of language in helping children learn to regulate their emotions, to make friends and to act in social situations. Bolstering these postulations, a study, “Longitudinal predictors of reading and math trajectories through middle school for African American versus Caucasian students across two samples,” by Stephen Hooper and his team published in the journal Developmental Psychology in 2010 has found that toddlers who lacked language skills behaved aggressively and often had behavioural problems as they grew up. On the other hand, kindergarten students with developed language skills who felt comfortable expressing themselves were seen to be less likely to get upset and respond violently to a challenging situation when compared to their peers with less enhanced language skills.
What makes reading effective?
However, it is important that you, as a parent, remember that reading out stories alone doesn’t help build a child’s language skills. Research has shown that to ensure deep learning experiences, parents need to ask open-ended questions to children while reading the story. It is advisable that you initiate a conversation with your child around the story rather than merely label things or characters yourself. For example, you could point to a picture and ask your two-year-old, “What does Krish have in his hand?”
“Ball,” your child will respond.
“Yes, that’s a ball,” you agree.
Reading bedtime stories regularly will also inculcate a sense of discipline in your child. When this activity becomes a routine part of the day, he will look forward to it. It will become part of the day’s schedule. And for those parents who face a challenge in putting their child to bed, a bedtime story can prove to be of great help. Reading a story to him while he’s in bed will soothe him, and make you feel calmer too. Many children have difficulty transitioning from one activity to another and from sleeping to being active or the other way around. A story will act as a bridge between a child’s active day and the winding down to sleep.
Gadgets vs physical books
In the current scenario, you may wonder whether it is appropriate to read stories to your child using your Kindle or phone. I would urge you to think twice about using gadgets. Rapid brain development happens within the first five years of a child’s life. Healthy interactive stimulation with a lot of physical outdoor play is the best way to spur your child’s all-round growth. Using gadgets to read to your child is likely to create distractions both for you and the child - the beep of a message or an email update, the temptation to check Facebook every now and then - aren’t these all too familiar? Yes, some of these temptations may not be present in some Kindle models. Yet, paper books have a calming effect unlike gadgets - the feel of the paper on your fingertips, the sound of the paper when you flip pages, watching your child run her fingers over her favourite picture and perhaps hugging the book, are not experiences that gadgets are able to replicate yet! Such experiences help you to be centred in the moment. And that’s something joyful and valuable.
Too much exposure to gadgets has also been shown to hinder the growth of a child. There is plenty of research to show that attention span, sleep patterns, language and social development skills of a child are affected by overexposure to gadgets. Technology intrudes into family life, and often into what could be a conversation space with your little one. One-on-one interaction is irreplaceable for your child’s healthy development and reading physical books can be a fun way of achieving this.
Sharing a story can also help create a deeper emotional bond between you and your child. You could use this time to connect to each other at a time of the day when things are more relaxed and there are no pressing schedules waiting to be met.
The mark of a good book of bedtime stories
Books of bedtime stories present the tales in the friendliest of ways. They have lots of illustrations of the characters which your child can relate to. The pictures are usually large and colourful, designed to give your child an experience of complete immersion. As she listens to you reading about the happenings in the lives of the characters, she joins them in their world. The experience creates a deep level of connection, helping her to relate to what others are feeling.
Every individual, even a child, has a mind of her own, and has the right to exercise a choice. Daniel Pennac puts it beautifully in his The Reader’s Bill of Rights:
- The right to not read
- The right to skip pages
- The right to not finish
- The right to re-read
- The right to read anything
- The right to escapism
- The right to read anywhere
- The right to browse
- The right to read aloud
- The right to not defend your tastes
The freedom to choose makes learning more joyful. Honouring your own choice and that of your child’s will serve the child’s growth and learning, and increase your bond with him in the long term.
Parul enjoys holding space for people and is a Psychologist who is passionately practicing Compassionate Communication. She works with teenagers, parents, young adults and adults. She also enjoys travelling, meeting new people, understanding their practices and beliefs and sharing them through her writing. She provides face-to- face and online counselling sessions. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.