Reading to support science learning begins with babies

Welcome back to guest blogger Sarah Erdman! Sarah writes about her first-hand observations of sharing books with a toddler. Learn more about her programs and writing at her Cabinet of Curios blog.

Teacher reads to a preschool class.When you search a bookstore database, you can find over 1,000 books that are categorized as “science” for children, ages 0-2 years old. Honestly, I think that number is a little low. Remember, “science” includes animals, plants, your body, the motion of objects, places around the world and more. That means that well-loved classics like The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle (1969) or The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss and illustrated by Crockett Johnson (1945) are all supporting your child as they explore the natural world. As caregivers, that gives us incredible freedom to choose books that spark the interest of the babies and toddlers in our care. Resources such as Even More Picture-Perfect Science Lessons: Using Children’s Books to Guide Inquiry, K-5 by Emily Morgan and Karen Ansberry (2013) can guide us to books that support learning science concepts without developing misconceptions about the natural world. Check out the NSTA Recommends website to find Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K–12, chosen in cooperation with the Children’s Book Council. Ladybugs by Gail Gibbon (2012) and The Beetle Book by Steve Jenkins (2012) are two of the winning titles for 2013. Knowing how many books support science learning gives us one more reason why reading is such a crucial and fun activity to do with your young child!


Adult reads to toddlerLovely sentiments, but when it comes to reading to a wiggly 1 year old the reality can be very different. A lot of parents that I’ve met are concerned that their toddlers are reluctant readers, or are just at the end of their creativity for how to add reading into their day. Never fear! There are strategies to make reading less stressful. Even with very young children, when it comes to books, it is all about how you pick them, how you read them and how you add them to your day.
This post is intended as a starting point, but if you want more information you can search for “raising a reader” on the Internet. You will find a lot of articles like “How to Raise a Reader” by Common Sense Media, which has a lot of tips for older children and “How to Raise a Reader” by Parents, which breaks down strategies for different age ranges.
When you have a child who isn’t talking yet, it can be hard to know what types of books they want to read. For no reason that I can tell, my son might take his favorite book and chuck it off the side of the chair and unearth one that he usually shuns. This is why I take full advantage of our library. It lets us “try on” some different kinds of books as I get a feel for what he is interested in. Then I can decide what ones we are going to invest in and feel more confident they will hold his interest. Hand-me-downs and garage sales are also a great way to acquire a wide variety without spending a lot.


Toddler selects a book from the shelf.I am a HUGE fan of board books. Since he could pinch the pages between his little fingers, my son has loved turning pages. With a board book he can be a helper as we read and he really gets into the story. For babies and toddlers, a nice sturdy book lets them experience the story in their own way (yes, often that means munching on the corners). You don’t have to say “no” or tell them to be “careful” and they can just delight in the sensations. The more independent they can be, and the less they have to hear “no,” the more interesting reading will be as an activity. We are now starting to incorporate more traditional picture books and with some guidance he is making the transition to turning soft pages.
Unfortunately, many publishers feel that as long as the book has colorful pictures and is fairly sturdy it is a good book or toddlers. But that isn’t really the case. When you are looking for a book for your very young child you need to take a look at the word count on each page. Too many words and you won’t get through them, which will be really frustrating for you. Finding ones that have only a sentence or two on each page will be good for easing into reading together. As your child grows you’ll be able to better judge what they can tolerate and increase the complexity of the text.


The quality of illustrations also ranges from uninspired to really stunning. I actually have no preference between drawings and photographs. My son is equally delighted by his cartoon truck and the color photograph of the dump truck. In my opinion, a mix is good since he will learn to distinguish between “real” and “pretend” and see a range of art and interpretation. My son tends to get overwhelmed if there is a lot happening on each page, so I try to make sure that the pictures are not too busy. You might find that is successful for your child also, or they may delight in a book that has a lot going on. Another factor to consider when you are choosing books is to make sure that YOU can stand it. Remember, if everything works out as you hope you will be reading these books over…and over…and over. If there is a book that really rubs you the wrong way, don’t include it in your library.


My son love to hear the first couple pages of a book and then go back and hear them again. Sometimes I have to stop myself from hurrying him on to the rest of the book. In my mind he is memorizing the book, but I don’t know if that is true. My evidence for this is that for some of his favorite books he knows when the words on that page are done and it is time to turn to the next one and that is really exciting for me see. As you are reading you don’t have to stick to just the words on the page. You can ask them questions, point out things in the illustrations, encourage them to make the noises or finish off a well-loved sentence. Even for kids who are not yet talking this back and forth and observation is an important skill to learn and books are a great way to introduce them to it! Visit “Reading Rockets” for more strategies.


Teacher engages with children as they read together.One of the key components of this is a phrase popular in teacher education called “wait time.” It is literally the time you wait after you’ve asked a question. With bigger kids, this is the time they need to collect their thoughts and maybe get up the courage to share. For babies and toddlers it is the time that teaches them “here is where you share” and gives them a chance to vocalize. When we read “Moo Baa La La La” (his current favorite book by Sandra Boynton) I always pause before I make the animal noise. Sometimes he jumps in with an “Mmmmmmm” (that’s the way he moos) and other times he just looks at me and smiles. Giving him a chance to talk, and praising and reacting to him when he does, is encouraging him to share and observe and engage in the book. All good and transferable skills!


As you build up a fantastic library, a key factor is to make sure your baby or toddler has access to it. Since they aren’t reading yet, the real attraction will be the illustrations on the cover and it works best to figure out storage that still lets them see the covers. I have an awesome bookcase that I bought from a preschool that is like a book store display shelf, but you can also use baskets, spice rack shelves (that is a Pinterest suggestion!) or put them right into the toy box. Having books throughout your child’s world will mean that when the mood strikes, there is a book close at hand. We have a bag of them in the car, which make them special since he doesn’t see them all the time. One of his favorite times to read is when he is strapped in to his car seat with few other options! I also have a few water safe books, which can be a fun change during bath time. I do hesitate a little with books around the tub because I don’t want him to think just any book can take a dunking!


We also put a few books in his crib at night and for naps. Now, the American Academy of Pediatrics is very firm on its recommendations that babies should not have toys etc. in their crib and if your child is prone to chewing on books this may not be the best choice for you. For my son, a sturdy board book in the corner of his crib does not get in the way of his sleep and is something he will entertain himself with when he wakes up. I love going in to get him and finding him happily flipping through pages and talking to himself.


Finally, and this is especially for caregivers who worry their baby or toddler doesn’t “like” books, take a deep breath and let yourself relax. If you have books available, if they see you enjoying them and you incorporate them in low stress ways throughout the day then they will learn to associate books with pleasant and fun times. Your baby may only want a page or two before he moves on to something else, but that is ok. They are learning from you what it means to be a reader and incorporating it into their day. Sampling different type of books, as well as when and how you read together will let you find the right combination for you. For more tips, resources and strategies I highly recommend the website 0f Zero to Three, which is a “national non-profit that provides parents, professionals and policymakers the knowledge and know-how to nurture early development.”

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