Once upon a time – in fact, in April this year – teachers at Latton Green Primary Academy in Harlow were reported to be using Facebook to live stream bedtime stories to pupils whose parents didn’t have time to read to their children. Pupils as young as five were snuggled up in bed with iPads or smart phones and were enjoying the stories read by the pyjama-clad teachers! Now, this scenario isn’t every parent’s cup of tea, but the lengths the teachers went to highlight two important points: that teachers and other experts think reading to young children is hugely valuable; and that the reality for many over-fives is that bed time isn’t accompanied by stories.
“Parents have definitely got the message that they need to read to their children up to the age of five or six,” said Catherine Bell, managing director of publishing giant Scholastic. “What’s really interesting [is that] as children acquire the skills to read themselves, parents back off.”
A survey Scholastic commissioned in 2015 showed that many parents stop reading to their children when they become independent readers, even if the child isn’t ready to lose their bedtime story. This is way too early. A child may be able to read but it's the love of reading that has to be instilled, and this happens when a child sees being read to as a time of comfort and pleasure. “It felt so warm, so spirit-rising,” as one 11-year-old boy explained in Scholastic's survey. It is this love of reading that motivates learning.
There's no doubt that reading to a child boosts their academic ability – increasing attention span, improving communication skills, enhancing the imagination and promoting critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. It also strengthens family relationships. Cuddling up to a relative to share an adventure in a book before drifting off to sleep is an idyllic image all children should enjoy.
A simple 10-15 minutes of this down time can also have powerful and beneficial calming effects on a child's mental wellbeing. Here's the science: “The brain enjoys a good story as it activates our imagination,” explains hypnotherapist and author Dipti Tait. “When we begin reading tales of adventure, fantasy and mystery to our children, this creates a positive pathway for the brain to follow. Once we drop into sleep, the brain naturally falls into REM [Rapid Eye Movement], the dream state, so quite often the storytelling helps the child begin the REM process and often encourages sleepiness.”
Clearly, with all their benefits, stories should be read aloud to children for as long as possible – to secondary school if they're willing! On the other hand, it's never too early to start. Your baby will love hearing you talk, sing and read. In fact, reading aloud while still pregnant has its advantages, establishing a habit for the mother and being a comfort to a baby who will recognise its mother’s voice from the womb. A young baby will enjoy the closeness to the people they love the most and the undivided attention a bed time story brings. Of course, a newborn won't understand the meaning to begin with, but will soon start to understand the rhythm of language. As a baby's eyesight improves over the first few months, books with bright colours and sharp contrasts will be fascinating.
Here are our top tips when reading a story to a baby:
Use different emotions and expressive sounds.
Encourage your baby to look, and ask questions.
Wait for your baby to imitate sounds and recognise pictures.
Read with excitement and joy.
Cuddling while reading makes babies feel safe and warm and helps them to associate stories with pleasure.
Sing rhymes and make funny animal sounds.
Aim for books with lift-up flaps to encourage engagement.
Turn off distractions like television or radio.
Don't worry about repeating your stories, words and phrases. A baby will enjoy starting to recognise sounds.
We've selected a few of our favourite bed time stories for babies and toddlers. Some are as familiar as old friends, some are bright, fresh faces...
Good night, Gorilla, by Peggy Rathmann
How to Read a Story, by Kate Messner
The Very Hungry Caterpillar, by Eric Carle
The BFG, by Roald Dahl
The Wonkey Donkey, by Craig Smith
Good Night, Little Bear, by Patsy and Richard Scarry
Goodnight Moon, by Maragaret Wise Brown
The Gruffalo, by Julia Donaldson
Winnie the Pooh, by AA Milne
Llama Llama, Red Pyjama, by Anne Dewdney
Guess How Much I Love You, by Sam McBratney
A Book of Sleep, by Il Sung Na
Monkey Puzzle, by Julia Donaldson
We Found a Hat, by Jon Klassen
The Green Giant, by Katie Cottle
Oi Duck-Billed Platypus! by Kes Gray and Jim Field
Square, by Jon Klassen