Reading for entertainment, reading for learning and exploring new ideas, reading for escape, reading for inspiration, it’s all good. That was the general consensus from readers of my post last month entitled “What is a balanced reading diet?”. People responding through the blog or through Facebook all considered their reading time as special, often as escape from work and other aspects of their everyday lives as well as a source of learning and inspiration. People’s favourite books were described like old friends, conjuring up happy memories for them.
As I mentioned in that post, I was interested to see whether the same sources of motivation and reward held for children, especially since I’ve been trying to write for my grandchildren and don’t want to totally miss the mark. So I undertook a small survey of young children and their parents. The results of my survey of what they like to read – and why – had a bias in it that I should have expected: everyone in my survey lives in a household where reading is king. Each child had his or her own favourites, which gave clues to the child’s personality and age. But nobody mentioned the same books, or even the same characters; clearly there is something for everyone, you just have to find it. They liked to be read to for entertainment, to hear something funny … or brave … or scary. They liked to read stories with really good pictures, so they could look at the pictures and see funny things, or maybe clues, or to use the pictures to be able to tell the story themselves. They liked stories about their favourite topics, like animals or history or fantasy. They liked learning about new subjects in which they became absorbed, like ancient times or geography.
The children surveyed who could read to themselves, or were starting to, especially liked books that had compelling characters. They didn’t use the word “compelling”, but there was no doubt that well-developed and familiar characters were the drawing card. For some it was because they already knew the characters from TV or videos, and for others it was simply that the characters in a book were so well developed that the young reader wanted to read more about their exploits. The characters might be nice or not so nice, smart or not so smart, but they were fun to read about; they were believable – they seemed real – and in so being, they drew in their young readers.
When reading the survey responses of parents as to their favourite books to read to their kids, it was obvious that for these parents, reading to their kids is one of their joys in life – well, as long as the books aren’t too long! Interestingly, parents cited rhyming books like Dr. Seuss among their favourites, which didn’t get mentioned by any of the kids. Two parents even read favourite rhymes to their children while they were pregnant with them! You know what; all these kids have a huge advantage in life. The article that originally got me thinking about the notion of a “balanced reading diet” in the first place was written to encourage people who want to develop leadership skills to also develop a life-long reading habit. How much easier that is when it starts at your parents’ side.
The take-away I got from musing over the responses from my little survey was that finding ways to engage all children in reading – as early as possible – is the critical piece. What are our challenges? We need to make sure our children are introduced to books that they relate to and that hold their interest. Regardless of how often kids are read to, and how book-oriented their parents are, some kids are going to be more interested in reading than others. I know that in my family, my mother, in her desperation to get one of my brothers to read more, resorted to forcing him to read a certain number of chapters of a book of his choice before he could go out and play on Saturday mornings. He read The Babe Ruth Story several times! Finding good books about sports, biographies, and other non-fiction for young boys can make a big difference when they are able to read by themselves. A lot of the fiction for early readers seems to appeal more to girls.
Many of us can identify books that have had a profound and lasting impact on us, often from when we were young; A.M.B. has recently posted a thoughtful blog on this topic: “When do books stop changing our lives“. Our children will be less likely to stumble upon those special influences if they aren’t predisposed to seek out new books from an early age. Another recent blog, aptly entitled “Books“, does a great job of describing the joy books can bring to us over a lifetime.
One big challenge is ensuring that reading retains a place for children in this world of TV cartoons, the Internet and video games. In a research study now known as the “Sponge Bob study”, aka The Immediate Impact of Different Types of Television on Young Children’s Executive Function, it was determined that fast-paced cartoons do in fact have a negative effect on the ability of 4year olds, at least immediately after viewing, to perform activities requiring executive function (of cognitive processes), this after only 9 minutes of viewing. Any of us who have watched children watching cartoons will know that zombie stare and so not be too surprised at that conclusion. I will admit to being a proponent of turning on the cartoons to introduce some down time while dinner is being made, although it is a bit unsettling to watch how kids are immediately transformed into non-responsive beings as soon as the animation begins. It sounds like a little animation on a screen goes a long way. The main drawback to raising an addicted reader, on the other hand, is getting their nose out of their book long enough to eat, socialize, and get their homework done. Their cognitive processes are fine!
The bottom line seems clear: giving our children a love of reading and access to engaging reading material are among the greatest gifts we can give them.
With thanks to the families that participated in my survey.