THE BLOG

Your Baby Can Read? That's Nice, But It's Not What Toddler Story Time Should Be About

12/03/2010 11:23 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

By Gayle Snible, The New York Public Library

If I had a dime for every book I or anybody else has ever read to my two-year-old daughter Charlotte, her college fund would already be through the roof.

Charlotte loves stories. And I love reading them to her. I'm a trained librarian and in my day job as a New York Public Library publicist a reading advocate, so books have always been a big part of my life, and by extension, my family's life.

I know reading is important in helping Charlotte grow, and I want my daughter to be the smartest, brightest, most creative kid she can be and to have as many options open to her as possible.

But, in the end, reading is just fun for her and provides key experiences - and that's what I believe is really important.

Reading to children isn't about pressuring your kid into becoming some sort of prodigy who can wow your friends at parties by reading index cards at six months. Many experts also believe it's mostly about fun, bonding time, and improving their language (not reading) skills.

"It's not supposed to be a work activity," says Tovah Klein, Director of Barnard College Center for Toddler Development . "This [message] has been lost. It's about the relationship back and forth between a child and their parent or caretaker. It can be a one-on-one, relaxed, cuddly time."

"There are no rules really for reading [to a child], but that it should be an enjoyable activity," adds Klein. "It can be turning pages with a child or labeling what they see in a book. 'I see a little girl in the book, and she's running.' Toddlers will listen to a book, but they don't need the full story. There's no right way; it should be a delightful activity."

There are, of course, developmental advantages to reading to your child.

"Young children are like sponges," says Alan Mendelsohn, MD, Associate Professor of Pediatrics at New York University's School of Medicine and Attending Physician at NYC's Bellevue Hospital. "They absorb what's around them. The exposures they have to language is the key to how they learn language, gain language, and become prepared in school. The key to this is the interaction that children have with adults."

In other words, language skills and the actual activity of reading with an adult are the most important outcomes of toddler story time - not learning the words out of context.

"Reading to a child provides experiences for the child," explains Mendelsohn. "Early experiences are literally modeling brain development. Reading is providing critical language experiences that cause the brain to develop in ways optimal for success in school."

Mendelsohn is also the founder of Reach Out and Read (ROAR) at Bellevue. ROAR volunteers read aloud to children while they wait for the doctor, and then each child receives on book at the end of their visit. ROAR hopes that parents who might not feel comfortable reading aloud to their children become more comfortable doing so as the program touches them repeatedly over the years.

The New York Public Library has group reading sessions for children of all ages, starting with babies and going through sixth grade. (Programming is provided for all age groups, but group reading generally ends at this age.)

My local library, NYPL's Woodlawn Heights branch, has Toddler Story Time on Thursdays at 11 a.m. My daughter and I were, at one time, regulars. From 14 to 17 months old, Charlotte spent most of her energy at Toddler Story Time pushing all of the board books off of the shelves. I was incredibly embarrassed and thought about discontinuing our Story Time visits, but Library Manager Rana Smith encouraged me to return. "That's fine; we'll re-shelve the books. This is just a phase," she'd tell me confidently.

Coincidentally (or not), at 18-months-old (Toddler Story Time is for children 18 to 36 months old), Charlotte did indeed stop pushing books off the shelf and started sitting in my lap and listening to Rachel the Librarian read through the selected books.

"[Parents and caregivers] shouldn't expect that their children will sit for story time," said Klein. "Books should be something they develop an interest in over time. [Toddler Story Time] is a fun activity; it's another way to introduce books into their life, as long as you don't expect a toddler to sit and listen. The expectations should be pretty minimal."

"Reading aloud in particular allows children to regulate themselves, so that with parents, librarians, and others can pay attention in a joined together way to what's going on in front of them. One's ability to regulate behavior has implications in every sphere of what follows as one grows up," Mendelsohn explains.

Toddler Story Time is available at a majority of NYPL's local libraries. We've also recently videotaped several Story Time visits which are available online so you can play them for your kids at home whether you live in Staten Island or San Diego.

For more information on these programs and other children's programs, visit nypl.org.