My son is entering first grade in a matter of weeks. As part of our summer-long preparation for this milestone moment in time, we have, for the first time, purposefully engaged together in summer reading. We’ve tackled the recommended books and authors from the school’s official Summer Reading list, and we’ve also begun a nightly ritual of reading chapter books together. The novelty of this practice has given us something to look forward to each night. The time we’ve spent cozying up on a mound of stuffed animals on Henry’s bed has also provided treasured moments of connection between us—allowing us to end our days on a positive note, no matter what.
The moment when you and your child begin to connect through reading in a truly meaningful way is a special pushpin in the timeline of his or her childhood and your parenthood. There will be many moments like it. That said, so many of these pushpin moments are hard to sustain over time due to busy schedules and unexpected events. We start to neglect them, and eventually the magic is exiled to the realm of memory. It happens, and for some things that’s alright because they’ve run their course. However, reading together and making reading a part of a child’s everyday life is something worth preserving at all costs. I think it’s very possible to do with a little diligence. Here are some ideas:
1) Visit the library every two weeks, no excuses. Commit to two times a month when you and your child can spend at least an hour at the library. Come prepared with a short list of topics your child is interested in as well as recommended books or authors, use the computer to locate books and then hunt for them together among the stacks. Afterward, find a comfortable space and review your choices to decide which books will be keepers (consider how much territory you can reasonably cover in the two or three weeks allotted). Finally, invite your child to help you locate your grown-up books, too, so they get a sense of their own future as a reader.
2) Read together, one-on-one every night. This is probably the toughest part. Obviously, bedtime is an ideal time for reading one-on-one with each child individually because the day is calming down and they are more likely to enjoy the stillness. I try and commit to a minimum of ten minutes with each child every night (moms and dads can switch off nights), even when we’ve had a busy day or when bedtime has been postponed for some reason. The benefits of exclusive time with each child are many. For one thing, without the distraction of another child around, he or she will be more focused on the story. Also, when you are managing just one little listener you are more able to respond thoughtfully to your son or daughter’s unique questions without losing the other child’s interest or speaking at a level above or below them. Finally, your child loves your undivided attention and sending them off to bed with that loving, special feeling is a gift you can give every night. Nights impossible? Reading is a great wake to start the day, too.
3) Establish context in everyday life. With a book as your guide, no rainy day has to be boring. Simply choose a memorable element from your current book—whether it’s a new vocabulary word, concept or favorite character—and use it as a starting point for an activity or conversation the next day. While reading Charlotte’s Web, we used yarn to try and make our own webs one day. It was silly and challenging, but it connected us with E.B. White’s message that Charlotte had a very special, important and unique talent—just like Wilbur the pig did when he tried to jump and use his “spinnerettes” to make a web. We also went to the farm to observe the characteristics of pigs. And we had many discussions about pride, bring proud and what it meant to be too proud, which came up quite a bit in the story.
4) Grow the habit. Reading together at night is a wonderful habit for as long as your child allows you to share that time with them. As they get older, though, reading independently, but together, can be equally gratifying. If you are blessed with activity-free weekend time (or better yet, assure that you are), go ahead and establish a Saturday or Sunday reading hour (or half hour to start), when you all find a space in the family room with a favorite book—and read together quietly. Remember that all reading counts—maybe it’s an activity book or a magazine. Make the time special with chocolate milk and a cookie. Bonus: You get to read, too. And modeling good habits is so important. With young children, they might play or thumb through books initially, but with time it can become a treasured routine for them.
5) Always encourage reading. Caught your little reader with the flashlight on under his covers at 10 p.m.? It might not be the best habit to continue, but don’t squelch it just yet. Instead, turn on the light. Let them have an extra ten minutes to get it out of their system, and finish that chapter. The next night, put some limits around it but allow extra time after you leave the room. Be sure to ask them what’s happening in their book so they can tell you all about what has them so excited. Do you have a tiny tech-lover? Jump from the page to the screen where kids can connect with other book lovers or find new books to read. I like Reading is Fundamental.
Reading is, of course, a required skill, but when we can make it fun, relaxing and adventurous for our children we give them a necessary tool for Life, the capital L kind, because stories also help us to know ourselves and our world better. To get started reading great chapter books with your child, check out The Greatest Children’s Chapter Book of All Time as a reference, or visit the Children’s Room at Newburyport Public Library to talk with a librarian.