Kids are natural storytellers. They narrate their worlds as a series of adventures and they haven’t forgotten the wonder in everyday experiences. Because of this, showing children the joy of reading is a great way to encourage learning. Young children especially are primed to absorb the lessons woven into classic tales: they learn about the value of quality work while reading “The Three Little Pigs”; they learn about vanity in “The Emperor’s New Clothes”; or they read stories about other places and times and these stories can burst open their understanding of the world and of themselves.
The secret power of reading is that these lessons are woven into the stories themselves. Children discover values and facts through experiencing the story, through imagining and immersing themselves in it, rather than by someone else telling them the answers. This doesn’t mean that caregivers and teachers don’t have an important role in fostering children’s engagement with stories – they do! When you read to your child, or talk to your child about what they’ve read, there are many questions you can ask and conversations you can start that will help deepen their learning.
With very young kids, questions can be as simple as pointing to an image in the book and asking, “What’s that?” Give your child a moment to figure it out – watch that brow furrow and imagine the neurons firing and connecting underneath. “And what sound does a cow make?” you might ask as a follow-up (get ready to moo). Or perhaps, “Yes, an airplane! Do you remember when we saw an airplane in the sky when we were at the park?” No need to ask a question every sentence – you can take your cues from your child. You may find that as you start asking questions during storytime, your child will start asking questions as well, and a new rhythm to your reading may emerge.
A reading warning: young children, especially preschoolers, love hearing the same story over and over…and over. This can be challenging for us adults. The best way I’ve found to overcome the tedium of reading “Goodnight Moon” for the fourth time in a row is to remind myself of the amazing learning process happening inside their brains as they listen to their favorite stories multiple times – how they’re taking in syntax and vocabulary, how they’re noticing the way certain words on the page correspond to certain sounds even before they can make sense of all those squiggly lines. (That said, sometimes storytime needs to be over, and we’re only going to read “Goodnight Moon” once…okay twice.)
Slightly older readers can be challenged to think about the more subtle messages contained in stories: “Why do you think everyone pretended to see the Emperor’s clothes? Were they pretending? Or did they actually think they saw the clothes?” You can encourage them to think beyond the confines of the story: “Where do you think the weavers went after they disappeared?” And you can tie elements of the story back to their own lives: “Remember when it took you a long time to finish your homework, but you stuck with it? That reminds me of the Tortoise. Did you feel like him when you were working so hard?”
These are just a few jumping-off points. The more you engage in the magic of stories with your child, the more you’ll discover about what lights them up, and what kinds of questions pique their curiosity and delight. Reading is one of the keys to the secret garden of our imagination – what a wonderful gift to give to your child.