by Elizabeth Stilwell
Early Childhood Specialist
Family Reading Partnership
Recently, a young mother asked me if I thought reading stories to her 3-year-old on her tablet was story time or screen time? Good question, since the American Academy of Pediatrics advises that parents read to their children beginning at birth but also recommends no screen time for children under 2, and less than two hours a day for older children.
Maybe a better question to think about is, “How can we make reading e-books to young children more like story time and less like screen time?” Pediatricians recommend reading to children right from the start because for a baby, the read-aloud experience centers on connecting with a loving adult through language and warm, responsive interactions. Flipping the pages of a book back and forth, hearing your voice, watching as you point to illustrations, and putting their own sticky fingers and sometimes mouths on the same spot, are all part of sharing a book with a baby. Babies simply can’t have that experience with an e-reader. They might be very interested in watching the screen, but will miss out on the rich, multi-sensory experience of sharing a traditional book.
For older babies, toddlers, and preschoolers, the ideal read-aloud experience is one that sparks curiosity and conversation. How that experience changes with digital picture books depends on a few things. Digital picture books are often enhanced with music, animation, and games. They are definitely engaging to young children but with all this interactive fun, sometimes the actual story gets lost. Research shows that there is much less adult-child interaction and conversation with e-books, so much of the read-aloud benefit is also lost and children spend more time on “making the book work” than settling in and enjoying the experience. There is no denying the convenience of e-readers and the fact that these devices offer access to hundreds of books at home or while families are traveling.
Here are some simple things to consider if you want to get the full read-aloud benefit from a digital picture book for your toddler or preschooler.
- Choose digital books in a format that is as simple as possible. If your goal is to read to your child, use books without all the extra bells and whistles. Search for classic picture books in a digital format.
- Turn off the narration. Especially the first few times with a new digital book, read the book in your own voice, pause, ask questions, and fully engage in the wonderful parent-child conversation that makes the read-aloud experience so rich for young children. Just as with traditional books, children will learn to “read” them independently. Encourage them to do this without the narration and to tell the story as they remember it by looking at the pictures.
- Use the manual instead of auto setting. This allows you and your child to move through the book at a comfortable pace, and to turn back a page or two whenever your child wants to.
One good model of e-readers for children is “Tumble Books,” an excellent resource for digital picture books that stay true to the story and offers a variety of user options. The convenience and novelty of e-readers for young children can provide entertainment and access to a huge collection of books. It’s the adult who can help make this experience more complete by adding a warm lap, and lots of conversation.