Tag Archives: parenting

3 easy ways to make reading fun for kids

I’ve now been on bedtime story duty for twelve years. We’ve been on adventures in day-to-day worlds, trailed through fantastical realms, crept through sinister space ships, been on arctic expeditions, and much more besides.

It’s great to read to your kids, it offers lots of benefits. I’ve written before about the importance of reading to children. If you’d like to check that out just click this link.

If you are an adult in the UK who struggles to read but would like to get better you can get help from ‘The Big Plus’. You can find out more by clicking this link or phone them on 0800 917 8000.

Make Storytime Fun

In the past twelve years of bedtime stories, I’ve explored as many different ways of holding a child’s attention as I could think of. Some of these didn’t work, some had the opposite effect, and some were downright ridiculous.

However, in among all of the experimentation I’ve found at least a few things that definitely helped keep my kids enthralled enough for a half-hour or so of reading each night. This immersion in the story world has definitely helped develop their own love of reading too (to the point where I’m steadily being made redundant).

Giving the characters some personality

Photo by Gravitylicious.com on Pexels.com

The big thing that really caught their attention in the early days of story reading was something that might make many feel self-conscious, but it’s well worth the effort…voices.

You don’t have to be perfect; your Winnie the Pooh doesn’t have to sound exactly like the Disney version, your Gruffalo doesn’t have to sound like Robbie Coltrane, and later on, your Hagrid won’t have to sound lie Robbie Coltrane either.

You’re not trying to win an award, your kids won’t be overly critical (especially if you start early). Just make an effort. Changing your voice, even a little, will encourage most children to pay attention.

At baby and toddler stage they’re keyed-in to notice even the slightest changes in your voice. The more you change your speech patterns, the bigger the interest will be (at least that’s what I found).

I’ve always included voices when reading. They haven’t always been perfect but when we moved on to books without pictures it almost became a necessity. With a larger group of main characters, it helped a lot to have different voices so my kids could keep up with the story.

This has apparently had such an effect that my eldest son recently told me that when he reads by himself he hears different character voices inside his head. Good to know it was worth the odd sore throat.

Set the scene

Another important discovery in the early days of storytime was to add a bit of theatre to make ‘story time’ into an event.

We didn’t do this all the time but sometimes I felt it was necessary. One of the biggest changes was the move on to chapter books. Without pictures, it was sometimes necessary to do something to draw my kids deeper into the story. I had to think outside the box.

For example, we might build a fort in their room after tea, then read in it for bedtime. I sometimes set up special lights to make the room look different (cheap battery-powered fairy lights bought in the pound shop or other bargain shops were ideal for this).

Whatever made storytime stand out was worth a try. If we had time, it could be something big but most nights it was as simple as switching off the room light and using a reading lamp and some fairy lights. Here’s one tactic that I found really useful.

Let them pick

You should let them pick their own story. I won’t lie to you here; you may have to read the same picture book every night for a month if you do this. However, back at a time when their whole day was dictated by others (where they went, who they met, what they ate), this was one of the only ways my kids were getting to engage in making their own choices in life (albeit on a pretty small scale).

What’s more, it also gave me an early insight into their tastes and personalities. They’ve surprised me many times, especially at the library or book shops when looking for something new.

Let them look through and see what stories really stand out to them. This is actually a lovely experience, and it’s something I’m sure most parents will get a kick out of.

Try and enjoy it yourself

This is a sort of ‘bonus tip’ on top of the three mentioned so far I’d add this extremely important extra. Make sure you’re comfortable, happy, that you’ve got a good seat/beanbag/ whatever you like to sit on, and most importantly that you’ve got a wee cup of tea/coffee on hand to stop sore throats.

It can be hard to disconnect from things now. I know my phone beeps multiple times an hour, I’m guessing yours does too. I’ve come to see that half-hour as a welcome break in that constant stream of information. I put my phone away, I grab a cup of coffee, my kids get into bed (or sometimes sit with me) and we take a step away from our world for a little bit.

Reading to your kids doesn’t have to be a begrudging task that we do because we feel we ‘have to’. It can be a relaxing break from day-to-day life. Do what you can to enjoy the slower pace, the focussed time, the moments to catch up and laugh with your kids. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had more than a few nights where I can’t believe we’re reading the Gruffalo AGAIN (for example), but most of my nights have been something brilliant.

I wouldn’t give up story night for anything and I hope these hints help you find ways to enjoy it more too.

Please let me know if you try any of these hints in the comments below and as always thanks for reading,

All the best, John

Bedtime stories: How long till I’m ‘sacked’?

Some parents struggle with ‘story time’. It can be hard to fit it in with all the other demands modern parents have on their time.

All the same, my family and I have somehow managed to squeeze ‘story time’ into our routine from the very beginning.

I really mean the very beginning; on Logan’s first night home from the hospital I sat beside his cot and read The Lion the With and the Wardrobe. (And yes, I knew he didn’t understand. It was just nice to have an excuse to spend some time with the new little person in our house).

Why we continue night after night

Since then we’ve barely missed a night. Maybe the routine has been easier to maintain because we started so early (and I genuinely don’t know how we managed to fit it in alongside nappies, feeding times, and utter, bone-crumbling, exhaustion). Maybe we’ve just been lucky to have to free time in the evenings to read a story together.

Reading to my kids is one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve shared with them. We’ve gone on a lot of adventures together, each longer and more complex than the last.

However, there’s no escaping the fact that my kids are getting older. They’re both avid independent readers now and, to be honest, I’m not sure how much longer I’ve got till I’m ‘sacked’ as a Storyteller.

New adventures

We don’t really call it ‘story time’ any more but we still keep up the tradition. Our nights used to consist of a quick visit to the ‘deep dark wood’ with the Gruffalo, an adventure with the ‘Night Pirates’, or dropping in for some hunny with Winnie the Pooh.

Now, we’re adventuring with Harry Potter, ‘The Wee Free Men’, or more recently following high tech shenanigans with Artemis Fowl. We’ve enjoyed a seasonal adventure with the Christmasaurus and visited a very odd spaceship alongside ‘Cakes in Space’.

These stories are deeper than their old picture books (even the wacky ones). It has changed our evenings a bit. Now we might discuss tricky topics and my kids can ask about some pretty grown-up concepts but it’s easy(ish) as it all comes from the comfort of a fictional universe.

A parenting tool like no other

This is the tricky bit for me, if reading were simply an entertaining thing that myself and my kids enjoy together, then I could step back and let them enjoy it themselves. However, it has always had a discussion component too.

Years ago we would ask about whether Winnie the Pooh was being selfish by eating all of Rabbit’s honey, or we might talk about fear and what it means to be brave while reading the Gruffalo’s child. Because you’re reading, you can slow down, you can stop for a moment and go over story points. It’s not the same as watching TV or a movie.

The more nuanced books we read now let me check in with my children in a casual way. Topics in the book can be compared to their school or home life to see if there’s anything troubling them, or even simply something that they don’t understand.

Learning big life lessons in a fictional universe

This is what’s so hard about letting go of story-time now; at precisely the moment when discussions like these are of growing importance, my children are pulling back on family reading time in favour of reading by themselves.

There’s so much good for them to get from reading alone, I can’t deny them that, but I also feel the increased need for this distinctive form of family time.

I know the time will come (and soon) when I really will have to step back, but for now I’m going to try to hold on tight to what has been one of the most useful parenting tools I have ever had access to.

A tool to communicate? What do you use?

I can’t help but wonder how many other parents might be feeling this tug. Losing a tool for parenting that has few rivals.

To use a programming expression, I have always found fictional worlds to work as ‘sandbox’ worlds; places where you can experiment with ideas with no real-world risk. It’s imaginary so the (real-life) stakes are low, but you can still encounter complex social and moral problems.

Are any other parents missing the loss of their ‘sandbox’?

Do parents of older children have any insight on what can take the place of reading together?

Let me know in the comments below, and as always, thanks for reading,

All the best, John

Books are bad for you!

The primary criticism we hear about technological entertainment is that it is ‘anti-social’. I’ve also heard people insist that it makes people ‘less creative’.

When it comes to parenting advice it’s hard to ignore the growing idea that ‘Technology is BAD!’.

We seem to have a very different view when it comes to reading. It’s not a screen, it’s a ‘traditional’ form of entertainment, and it has a well-recognised link to creative and critical thought. All good, wholesome stuff, surely?

I’m not going to trawl the data running pros against cons. Instead I’ll share a very odd encounter I had with my wife’s grandmother. It was a few months ago and both my sons were fully absorbed in activities on separate hand-held devices. I felt the familiar squeamish sense that most modern parents probably feel; my children were ignoring guests in favour of their tech!

I was about to take their devises away when their great-grandmother looked at them with a smile: “It’s just lovely to see them like that.”

“Books are bad for you.”

It threw me into a sharp mental u-turn. She explained that as a child she was often criticised for her love of reading as it was ‘anti-social’. For some it was even seen as a waste of time, many told her that she should be doing something more ‘productive’. In short, she was told ‘Books are bad for you’. She looked at my sons’ use of tech as being equally beneficial to her childhood reading.

Penguin books began in 1935 and with the help of Woolworths, it pushed the notion of mass-market paperbacks into the public consciousness. It’s hard to speculate what the overall opinion of this new influx of books would have been even decades later but I imagine it would still be quite a new thing to see children in all walks of life sitting reading.

Computer games have been around since the seventies but the hand-held game didn’t appear in the mass market until I was a child (the late 80s early 90s). Even then it was only my ‘rich’ friends who had one. They were still a luxury and by no means ubiquitous.

Since then hand-held devices have grown cheaper and more accessible. Their capacities have grown more diverse as well, as they come to serve an increasingly social and educational role (Gameboys didn’t let you chat to your friends after dinner, and to the best of my knowledge Mario never helped any of my friends with their homework). This sort of tech has a lot going for it.

Even the gaming itself has come to offer more depth, with more demands on critical thought, and on creative energies. Should we be so quick to condemn these glowing rectangles that now permeate our lives?

Where’s the harm?

There’s clear evidence that the actual light generated by screens can have a detrimental effect on sleep patterns, but at the end of the day doesn’t all artificial light? Gaming is also known to increase serotonin levels to a degree that can trigger addictive behaviours. This isn’t good and I’m sure I see a degree of this in my own children, but the same jittery, manic effect can be achieved with a big bag of sweets sneaked in by Granny.

I’m not going to say screens are perfect (and as an author I obviously have a vested interest in getting people to read books) but I can’t help but wonder if we’re vilifying the tech rather than turning the lens on ourselves as parents.

At the end of the day my own interest in my facebook/twitter feed, my blog reader stats, or even my work e-mails, will have its own (fairly large) part to play in any detrimental technological experiences that my children have.

It’s not the zombie in their game that will do them the most harm, it’s the zombie on the couch beside them. He doesn’t demand ‘brains’ but instead insists ‘I can’t just now, I have to answer this e-mail’. It is here that technology does the most harm to a child’s development, and the solution is blindingly simple (though it will make most of us uncomfortable to admit it).

Does my out-of-hours attention to my e-mails etc. mean my kids will grow up thinking that they should never have ‘down-time’? Does my own interest in social media make it look like ‘likes’, ‘followers’, and ‘shares’ are of equal importance to real-world feedback? Tech isn’t to blame for this, it’s me. Tech isn’t bad, books aren’t bad, it’s the lack of family engagement and shared interests that does the most harm.

I’m off to read with my kids now. If you’d like to do the same feel free to grab a copy of my book Jack Reusen and the Fey Flame, a fantastical family adventure with were-polar-bears, magical fairgrounds, odd little men who kick heads first and ask questions later, and (of course) a world hidden just behind our own; a world called Fey.

As always, thanks for reading, if you have anything you’d like to share about this post feel free to pop something in the comments section below or over on my facebook or twitter profiles (and yes I do see the irony, given what I’ve just said about screens and social media).

All the best, John