Reading to Toddlers: 10 Ways to Engage Your Children in Storytime

Our Long Road to Reading Together

I am an unabashed, unreserved, obsessive reader. From the moment I saw those two pink lines, I dreamed of sharing my love of reading with my son. I even threw him a Very Hungry Caterpillar themed first birthday party. So it was a huge surprise to me when my son proved utterly intolerant of being read to!

First, I tried during his meals. He hated me reading at breakfast. I thought, “Ok, maybe he’s just not a morning person. I couldn’t have someone in my face about Peter Rabbit before I get my coffee either.”

Then I tried lunch and snack time. I tried various times throughout the day. Even just sitting in the room as he played. But every attempt to read to him resulted in screeching, throwing books away, and hurt feelings.

He didn’t want me taking self-directed playtime away. And for my active, busy, playful boy, playtime is all the time.

This past September, I finally found the one time on the clock that isn’t playtime. The one time he won’t mind me taking up. His bedtime.

We climb into mommy and daddy’s bed and read together. It’s a special place, a calm time, and (most importantly) it postpones his going to bed! The first few times he did run off. But each time I calmly responded “If you get down, you’re telling me you’re ready to sleep. Are you ready for your bed?” If your child is anything like mine, he’d walk on hot coals before going to bed on time.

We started with just a board book or two. Now I can get through 10-15 pages of The Children’s Book of Virtues without losing his interest. We enjoy near weekly trips to the library. He’s learning how to gently treat paper books. And thanks in large part to his own innate hyperlexia, he’s reading quite a bit himself.

Reading aloud is a relational process, not a performance.

10 Tips to Start Storytime

I tried about a hundred different things to reach this point. To save you some of the trouble, here are my top 10 tips for more enjoyable storytimes.

  1. Do try fun voices. Acting talent not required, but some simple variations go a long way. Think zippy, high-pitched voice for a little mouse. Or a low, slow voice for a sleepy bear.
  2. Do try your regular voice as well. Little ones often are startled by loved ones changing. Once, my husband had to shave his face for a respirator test at work. The first time our son saw daddy clean-shaven, he burst into tears.
  3. Do choose stories within their interests. This doesn’t mean exclusively reading Lego Batman books, but choose books within their experiences. If you live in hotter climes like us, Snowy Day is more puzzling than engaging. But our frequent beach visits provide a frame of reference for books about the ocean.
  4. Do try reading while they play. These busy little bodies have a hard time sitting still.
  5. Do incorporate a little wiggle. Clapping, dancing, or little hand motions give pre-literate children a way to engage with the story. If you’re not sure how to make up your own moves, start with books that do it for you.
  6. Do offer a choice at storytime. You can still guide them towards more enriching books by limiting which you bring into your home. But even asking “Which first?” of the two books you plan to read, goes a long way toward a prickly toddler’s sense of control.
  7. Do try a snack time storytime. Buckled into a booster seat, your kid isn’t going anywhere. He’s the definition of a captive audience.
  8. Don’t require looking at the page. Toddlers weren’t made with long attention spans.
  9. Don’t read every word. Especially with text-heavy pages. It’s that attention span again.
  10. Don’t overthink it. Reading aloud is a relational process, not a performance. Your child will not write a bad review on toddler-IMDB.

Final Storytime Thoughts

Children don’t necessarily show their interest the same way you or I do. Sitting still, attending to text, these things are learned responses. Not every child is there yet, especially our special blessings. The desired result of toddler storytime is not phonemic awareness, but a love of stories and people.

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