Let Your Infant Rip Books…Just a Little

by Daniela

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If your munchkin is at all like my little guy (currently 10 months), one of his favorite activities is to swipe things off of shelves…especially books. Every infant and toddler knows that bookshelves are for knocking books off  and scattering them all over the floor…But, wait!  Don’t rush to pick up those books yet, even though that’s what your little monkey wants you to do just so that he can knock them down again.  Leave them there, wait a few minutes, and you just might find your little one “reading” on his own!   But this will not happen unless your child’s books are made accessible to him.

Neat and organized bookshelves certainly have their place, but if we become too regimented with our little ones’ reading routines and restrict how much they  are allowed to handle their own books, we’re doing a big disservice to our  children by constricting the expansion of their literary world.  Basically, we are are limiting and restricting their growing imagination, creativity, and increasing need for independence– pretty alarming when you think about it! If you are the type of parent who only reads with your child at a certain time, or only lets your child handle a book in your arms, or never lets your child take books off the shelf, this might apply to you.  Now, before I make you feel like a terrible parent (not my intention at all!), let me just applaud you for all  you are doing right.  The fact that you even read to your child in the first place means you are a huge step ahead of most parents (I was a teacher for  years; many of my students’ parents NEVER read to their children).  And if you are the organized type and like to have a reading routine with your child, even all the more commendable!  Reading routines are great; they help to make reading a habit in your child’s life. And as far as  bookshelves are concerned, they are  becoming an increasingly rare sight these days with so many people turning to digital books, so  a bookshelf in your child’s room is  excellent for helping to build a reading atmosphere.  The issue is  confining ourselves  within our reading agendas and not allowing our children, particularly infants, do some book exploring on their own.  If you have established reading as a habit or a routine in your child’s life, great!  Now we want to encourage a reading lifestyle, and this cannot happen if we are always the ones in control of what and how your little guy or gal reads.

So how can we help instill a reading lifestyle in our little ones’ lives?  How can we ensure that our young children become independent readers?  Assuming you have started reading with your child, preferably since he was an infant, and assuming your child already owns age- appropriate books and/or you frequent a library with your little one, the answer is simple: litter the literature!  What do I mean by this?  Don’t confine books to the bookshelf (I know that’s hard for all you Type A’s out there), but your little one is already knocking them off, right?  If he is at the crawling age or older, scattering books throughout the house in places where he might go exploring.  Put washable books in the bathtub, put a few on the coffee table, on the floor in his room, in his crib, or on a low-lying shelf where he can grab them.  Many people have televisions and computers turned on in every room of the house, so why not do the same with books?  We want our kids hooked on books at an early age, so if they can get hooked on television by its ubiquity, why not surround them by books instead?

Is it really that important to leave books around the house?  Does it really make that much of a difference in your child’s literacy?  The answer is, YES!  Why? And how?  First, we all know that infants and young children are experts at mimicking.  If you already read regularly with your child, leave him alone with a book, and I guarantee that he will pick up the book and not only start turning the pages, but will start examining the pictures, and even start talking while looking at the pages…This is reading!  Ok, maybe he’s not sounding out the words just yet, but he has already accomplished the first few steps of basic literacy:  he’s learned that a book is not just something to toss around and chew, but that it contains a message, a story.  He has learned to turn the pages (yes, this is literacy!).  How many kids have you seen who cannot sit still through a single book, will grab the book from the reader, and will snap it shut?  This is usually because the child has not been exposed to literature at an early age; he doesn’t understand what a book is and what it does.  If your infant can pick up a book on his own and look through the pages, he is already leaps and bounds ahead of many preschoolers!  It’s a HUGE step if a child can sit through a story and actually listen.  It’s another big step if he can participate in the story (this is difference reading to your child, not just with your child).  It’s a MAJOR accomplishment if your child can “read” on his own (and yes, even infants can do this!), and finally, it’s an incredible milestone if your child not only can read to himself, but starts to mimic you and read to another child!  We as parents and caretakers really do not have to do much to make this happen.  We just have to give our children a little freedom with their precious books to make these accomplishments happen.

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Yes, I know,  it’s hard to give an infant or toddler freedom with books when they cost so much.  Once my son mastered lifting the flaps of his lift-the-flaps books, I was absolutely delighted…until he started to become over-zealous with those flaps and the goal seemed to be more to rip the flap off as opposed to lift.  When we settled down one evening and got all comfy and cozy and ready to read the $12 ($12!!) The Wide-Mouthed Frog, I was devastated to find that the mouse suddenly and mysteriously only had whiskers on one side of his face.  This is the price (literally)  that comes when we give freedom in the hands of our littles.  Ok, so maybe our books won’t look new anymore, but what’s the point of having books if they are always stored away?  So your child’s books might be a little more worn, but they will be well-loved, and that’s the point.  This is not to say of course that you just let your child tear all those little flaps off and let them pass through their digestive systems, or let him scribble throughout his books. Just like anything else, children need to be given freedom, but with limitations and always while being monitored.  Also, if you notice your child becoming a little aggressive with his books, turn it into a teachable moment about how to treat them.  I also suggest putting the more fragile books out of reach, and keeping more durable books, such as board or cloth books, accessible. (However, even board books can look appetizing to an infant. If your infant is at all like my son, trust me, eventually even the most sturdy looking board book can start to rip or become punctured with teeth marks). It just comes down to coming to terms with the fact that wear and tear on books is inevitable; simply, it comes with the territory of encouraging a love of literature in your little one.

Besides learning to mimic reading, when books are made easily accessible, our little ones learn that reading is an activity that can be done almost anywhere and anytime.  This is super important in establishing a literary lifestyle.  When I was a teacher, it was very challenging to instill this in the lives of students who were not used to reading.  To them, reading homework was just that:  homework.  It was a laborious chore, something they had to sit down and make time for.  Growing up, I saw my parents reading anywhere and anytime and so I would do the same.  I’d read in the bathroom, in the doctor’s waiting room, on the subway, and just before bed. And you know what?  I still read in those places. When I know I’m going to be gone for several hours, I almost never leave the house without a book. Reading for me is easy.  It’s fun.  It’s not a chore.  This is all thanks to parents who instilled a reading lifestyle in my life from an infant age.  Reading is literally second nature to me, and that’s what we want to encourage for our littles!  Again, if we confine those books to the bookshelf, we are teaching them opposite:  that reading is only for a certain times and places, an unfortunate way to view books.

One of my proudest moments as a new parent  happened when we recently bought our ten-month old son an animated movie as a special treat.  We settled down to watch the movie together as a family…and then within five minutes, Elias lost interest, wiggled out of our arms, and crawled to his room to…the bookshelf!  He took down a book and started reading to himself!  I thought, that’s my boy!  I’m not a perfect parent and I still have a lot to learn, but I know that all those months of reading, even when it seemed like he wasn’t paying attention, are finally paying off.  What a reward as a parent!  I’ve also caught him reading in the bathtub, reading in his crib as he waits for me, and basically reading throughout the house. He knows what to do with a book.  He points out objects in the pictures on his own, presses buttons in sound books on his own, feels textures in touch-and-feel books on his own, and lifts those little flaps on his own.  He “talks” as he turns the pages on his own.  My little ten-month old already has a reading lifestyle!  This would not be happening if I had placed his books on a high shelf somewhere.  Now, take down some of your little one’s favorite books, place them throughout the house, and watch independent literacy happen!

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