If you’re the parent of a school-aged child, mid-July is just about the halfway mark between the June picnics and late August school supply shopping trips. As we crest the arc of summer, schedules have become amorphous: some combination of time at camp, strings of playdates, summer sports leagues, family vacations, and the odd chunk of downtime at home has shaken up the clockwork predictability of the year.
Whether you’re a parent working outside the home or you have the freedom to spend extra time with your children over the summer, there are plenty of ways you can keep kids from falling into a summertime slump, as well as instill habits that will keep them reaching for a book for years to come. The suggestions below are simple, realistic, and work all year round, so whether you’re planning on spending the day at the pool or transporting your children elsewhere before heading into work, reading and storytelling are a part of the plan.
1. Don’t fear boredom.
Many of us who are now parents, teachers, and other adults of child-caring age have very specific memories of what summer meant to us: freedom. The freedom to explore our backyards and neighborhoods seems so distant now with the multitudes of activities available to children today. For parents who are able to take time away from work, though, studies have also recognized the staggering positive effects of giving children the freedom and opportunity to be bored.
Wonderful things happen when you’re bored. Not right away, and maybe not for some time; being bored is a practice, perfected over a childhood spent shuffling your feet along the edge of the carpet, picking dandelions in the yard, watching the clouds float by, or picking up a book you might not have picked up before. Soon enough these activities that started as idle time-passing become an exploration of their limits. How many laps around the carpet, how many dandelions in the yard, how many clouds in specific shapes, how many books does it take to ignite the spark? Games are invented, new worlds discovered, and clever solutions are found when a child — or an adult, for that matter — has the space and the time to take a break from the constant stream of pre-fab entertainment available at our fingertips and get creative.
When age-appropriate books are available at home, within view and accessible, it improves the chance they get pulled off the shelf. Keep books fresh for toddlers by putting out several at a time, noting which they enjoy and rotating out the ones they’re not as interested in. Try again with those later, as tastes and interests can change quickly, and be patient when they get hooked on one book in particular.
For an older child, giving them that wide open, unstructured, uncomplicated block of time can do the trick. You’ll be able to sit back, too, because you will…
2. Pick up a book yourself.
“If you want to raise a reader, be a reader.” Modeling is one of the best ways for your children to understand that reading and learning isn’t just something they’re expected to do in school, or something to do when an adult asks them to. If you surround yourself with reading materials — books, newspapers, and other physical material is better than digital in this case — children are more likely to pick up a book on their own. It’s important that you’re not “performing” this behavior, but genuinely reading something you’re interested in. While it’s a great habit to have a book on you to read in those waiting situations, it’s also important to model the choice to read, to show reading as a standalone activity, not just for those in-between times.
Looking to read something new? Why not…
3. Make a date with the library.
There’s a reason this is “make a date” rather than “visit.” While you grow your child’s personal library at home, look no further than your local public library (and knowledgeable librarians!) for full book immersion in your community.
Whether it’s twice per week or once a month, make it as predictable as possible. Setting a date and sticking to it keeps books, and therefore reading, a priority. Go for storytime, get involved in the community events they host, spend a rainy afternoon gathering all the out-of-print titles you loved as a child, and witness other families reading together. Needing to return books also puts a little fire under a child who may be interested but hesitant: “Let’s read this book before we go to the library on Saturday, so we can bring it back and pick something new.” This isn’t something to push; mentioning it once should be enough. If a child has changed their mind about or lost interest in a book, there’s no shame in bringing it back to the library unread. It’ll be there next time if they’d like to give it another try.
Whether you drive, take the bus or train, or are able to walk to your local branch, the journey is an opportunity to build anticipation, get to know your community, and demonstrate the accessibility of books. You can chat about the books you’ve read and what you hope to read, liked and didn’t like, what you’ll look for when you get there.
Once you arrive, you can help your child if they’re having trouble choosing, but it’s often best to sit back while they pick the books that appeal to them. If a child is reluctant, you could each choose one and read both books together. If they’re old enough, give them some space to peruse on their own while you duck into the adult section. Autonomy and choice are key aspects of growing up an independently motivated reader, and that’s why you’ll eventually need to…
4. Relinquish control of what your child reads.
As long as children are staying within age-appropriate materials, or “reading up” to a challenging (but not discouraging) level, the best thing to do is to let children choose the books they’re interested in reading. According to Scholastic’s 2016 Kids and Family Reading Report, 89% of school-age children report that their favorite books are the books they have chosen for themselves. Sometimes they’ll choose something far below their reading level, and sometimes that’s okay. They may read the same book several times in a row. There will likely come a time when they’re interested in a book that’s beyond their reading level, which of course is a great opportunity to…
5. Read aloud to children — of all ages.
There’s a common misconception that once a child is reading on their own, they no longer need to be read to. While the benefits of reading aloud to infants and toddlers are discussed often, reading aloud to children who are already reading on their own has been proven to expand vocabulary, increase focus and attention to detail, and open discussion on topics that may be tricky for children to handle alone. The discussion is key, and it’s one of a few reasons why an audio book won’t cut it.
Reading aloud is commonly used as a way to wind down at the end of the day. Fortune may have it that as you’re finishing up a chapter, questions pop up at the same time you were hoping they’d be drifting off to Dreamland. If you have to choose between answering questions and finishing the book, it’s often best to put the bookmark in and engage in the discussion (although asking your child to wait while you finish the sentence, or page, is a good opportunity to practice patience). Questions and comments show your child is paying attention, but if this is pushing bedtime to a perilously late hour, make a note to…
6. Read with them during the day, not just before bed.
Take a look at this excellent guide, “How to Raise A Reader”, from The New York Times children’s book editors Pamela Paul and Maria Russo. In it, Russo mentions the importance of making time to read with your children during the day when possible, circling back to the earlier point that reading is not just a time-filler but a worthwhile activity all on its own.
When reading together, experiment with using the Whole Book Approach. Megan Dowd Lambert, author of Reading Books With Children: How to Shake Up Storytime makes the distinction between reading to children and reading with children. The technique involves asking questions and making observations before, during, and after reading the book. “What do you think this story is about, judging by the cover?” “Here’s what the back of the book looks like.” “Look at her face — what do you think she’s feeling in this picture?” Engaging children in the world of the story and giving them time to think and respond is one of the benefits of not being bound by the constraints of the bedtime hour.
There are so many opportunities during the day to bring language to your child’s attention, with or without a book. Bring toddlers into reading in small, everyday ways: read out street signs, examine a map. Write and mail a letter, sound out words on food labels at home or the grocery store. An older child can look up ingredients for a recipe and make a shopping list. The more you can show language and reading are an integral part of everyday life, the better.
No time to sit down together during the day? Why not use time in transit as an opportunity to…
7. Tell stories on the go.
This one comes from my personal experience as a teacher, but I did some digging after noticing this habit to find it’s backed up by significant research, not to mention the fact that oral storytelling is a rich tradition across many cultures. With the number of hours American parents spend in transit with their children between home, school, daycare, activities, and more, even during the summer, time is at a premium. There are days when a busy family is only together for a few minutes, and none of those minutes are available for picking up a book.
While we can agree it isn’t ideal, it’s a reality of many families’ lives. One of the best things you could do when you’re strapped for time together is to make a habit of collaborative storytelling. Stories can be as simple or as complex as suits your child, and it can be done anytime, anywhere. You could tell the story with their input, or take turns; the idea is to keep them engaged and give them the chance to expand the narrative by chiming in or asking questions. This provides them with an opportunity to learn the language of stories, from setting the scene to character development to story arc, as well as giving them time to connect with you. If you’re unsure how to start, some tips on how this is done can be found here.
The keys to nurturing a willing, enthusiastic young reader are to keep reading fun and light, read early and often, and celebrate the time you spend together while making books and stories a constant in your life. Books should be an opportunity for growth, comfort, and connection. When reading is a habit, you’ve got a reader for life.