Fun with books in the early years: promoting reading for pleasure

Why is reading for pleasure so important?
The range of leisure options available for children today is so extensive it’s hard to know where to begin. Swimming lessons, dance classes, football sessions, gymnastics clubs, television programmes, film showings, electronic games, both educational and otherwise, are all widely available. This list barely scratches the surface, yet it serves to demonstrate just how full a young person’s leisure time can become and how much competition there is for their attention.

One leisure interest that has yet to be mentioned, for which resources are widely available, is a truly wonderful pursuit with a multitude of benefits: reading. Reading is an excellent way for a young person to spend free time. It helps build an extensive vocabulary, develops control of sentence construction, sharpens spelling skills, and supports academic attainment across the curriculum.

It is a well-documented fact that regularly reading for pleasure is linked to improved academic achievement. An Institute of Education study found that young people who read regularly for pleasure make better progress from the ages of 10 to 16 in vocabulary, spelling and even maths compared with their classmates who read only rarely.

These benefits can have a positive impact on academic attainment across the board, not to mention improving knowledge and skills that employers often lament school leavers lack, so it is clear why so many organisations and individuals devote their time and energy to encouraging children into good reading habits.

A key element in achieving this is to lay the foundations for a lifelong love of books and reading in the early years of childhood and education. It is difficult to persuade a child or young adult who dismissed books as ‘boring’ long ago that the power of imagination is something in which they should revel. Convincing them that through reading you can engage deeply, feel fully and be gripped, is significantly harder if their earlier experiences of books were mundane and uninspiring.

Hook them on books early
It is so important to instil a love of reading and books when little ones are still little. If we want our children to receive the much-vaunted academic benefits that are linked to regularly reading for pleasure, not to mention the general knowledge, the emotional and social awareness and the sheer enjoyment they can get from reading books, we need to ensure that books and reading are enticing. In the early days especially, we need to make sure they are fun.

We should hook children young and show them that books are not always about quiet time. Without too much fuss, we can bring them out of the bedtime routine and make them part of playtime too. There will always be those children attracted by the quiet contemplation that reading naturally fosters, but there are plenty for whom this is the last thing they want, especially when they are younger and learning to control their impulses.

The key is to inject energy and life into reading, otherwise children who like to be active, who want to make and do and chase and hide, may eventually pull away from books. They will leave them to the ‘bookish’ and then it’s an uphill battle to reengage them in reading of any sort, especially for pleasure.

With positive associations, children who have more complex barriers to overcome in learning to read as well as those for whom it comes relatively easily, will have better motivation and a clearer idea of the benefits of learning to read. If they know from early experience that books can be entertaining, characters identifiable and stories humorous, sad, inspirational or scary, there is greater incentive to persist in learning to read so that they can access these joys independently.

The long term impact
For maximum impact we must be creative with books, selecting reading material that will appeal and utilising it in ways that suit the individual child. Plonking ourselves down and announcing, ‘We’re going to read a book,’ just will not cut it for a lot of children and, even if they do as they are asked, it does not necessarily mean they are engaged. It is certainly far better than not reading with them at all, but there are ways to increase the impact of our reading. With a little thought, a dash of planning, a prop or two, story time can be really good fun for everyone.

This does not mean enjoyment of books always has to be all singing, all dancing. Rest assured, there will come a time when the energy invested in promoting books and reading now will pay dividends and the input of parents and carers will not be required as intensively. With positive associations and good habits introduced early, as children grow they will be receptive to the idea of reading for pleasure.

Children who link books with fun, with learning, with creating and playing are more likely to understand and embrace the concept of reading for pleasure, not reading because they have to. Let’s use books to play games, to inspire songs and pictures, to build teetering towers and bridges, and most importantly of all, to enjoy time together. If we put a little time into creating a positive reading environment now, we can reap the rewards in the future.

Dragon Hunting

Integrating books and play need not always be meticulously planned, labour intensive and resource heavy. In fact, it can occur very organically, just making use of whatever is to hand.

A and I were finishing up making crafty dragons when I realised we could easily slip a book into what we were doing. She was already dragon-focused so, drawing on this, I asked A if she could find a book with a dragon in it. Off she went, very keen to go dragon hunting, and quickly found Charlie Cook’s Favourite Book. We’ve been rather Julia Donaldson heavy of late, so I encouraged A to keep going and find some more options. With a bit more rummaging around several bookshelves, she found Puff the Magic Dragon and, with a little prompting, a couple of others.

Of the four books we found, I let her choose which one she wanted to read, crossing my fingers for something a bit different. With two of the four books available having been penned by Julia Donaldson, I didn’t fancy my chances, but, lo and behold, she settled on Puff The Magic Dragon. I imagine it drew her most because, when we’ve explored it in the past, we sang and she was hoping for more of the same.

I gave A the option of reading or singing and she emphatically selected singing so that’s what we did. After the first time through, it dawned on me how much she’d love to hear the real song, not my out of time, tone deaf warbling so out came the phone for a quick dragon hunt of my own.

A was absolutely enchanted when I then played the song for her (through Spotify – thank you, Internet) and sang along where she could, turning through the pages and examining the pictures as she went. It was a short, sweet interaction with dragons that included creations of her own, books and music and helped to build the idea that texts are not islands, they are connected to everything around her. Most importantly, it was fun.

The book hunt idea occurred in the spur of the moment, but I’ll definitely use it again. It’s been a long time since Puff or Charlie Cook have made it off the shelves so I’ll use it as a way to get forgotten texts back into circulation. It also nicely transitioned her away from the ‘making’ activity, which would have gone on forever otherwise. It appears you can never make too many dragons! This glitzy beast is my personal favourite.

You Can Count On Number Fun With Spinderella

What did we do?
My eldest daughter is very number-oriented so yesterday we read Spinderella together and integrated some numeracy activities along with a very entertaining round of Subbuteo style penalty-taking with frozen peas.

Spinderella, a Julia Donaldson yarn illustrated by Sebastien Braun, tells the tale of Spinderella the spider who is keen to learn to count despite her family’s indifference to all things numerical; ‘down with numbers’ is commonly heard by Spinderella. Fortunately, living in the light above a school’s dinner hall, she is well-placed to learn all she desires, with a little help from her Hairy Godmother.

Now, being a terrible arachnophobe, we had no spider toys on which I could call so I had to think a little outside the box for this one. I wanted to really make the most of the numbers in the books so found:
• Ten pairs of shoes
• Ten Duplo flowers

And as we were reading, inspiration struck both V and I so we also ended up using:
• Goals made of books
• Frozen peas for footballs (the spiders play football with peas in the book!)
• Wands

We started by counting all the shoes and talking about how they are in pairs and what pairs are, before reading a little. We soon hit upon the first round of pea football and, although I hadn’t planned to, I realised how much the girls would love this so raced off to find some frozen peas and something with which to fashion a goal. We played with the peas and the goal until their ‘footballs’ defrosted and then had a quick pea-squishing session before carrying on with the book.

Upon the Hairy Godmother’s entrance into the story, V insisted that she and A go and get their wands so we had another interlude while they rummaged through the dressing up box. In the book, the children count from 1 to 20 so as we did this, A lay the shoes in a long line, counting as she went. We then used this page, which clearly shows figures 1-20, to count forwards and backwards a few times.

Our final number activity was splitting the ten spiders (Duplo flowers!) into equal teams, which I started and she finished.

How did go?
Spinderella was a brilliant choice of book for number-loving children and lends itself to discussions or activities involving fractions and multiplication as your child’s understanding of numbers develops. All of the above activities happened alongside the standard reading and was complemented by various bouts of counting you could do with the pictures, such as the number of spider legs, boots and children on each team. It took us a good half an hour to complete as there were so many ways to get the girls involved in the counting and it’s one I’ll definitely be doing with them again soon.

As A is so interested in numbers it’s great to see her still very much engaged with books and reading too. Books and games like the ones we played show her that they can cross over and we can have plenty of fun enjoying them both at the same time.

We had peas for dinner, as per the girls’ request after the story, but no pea football this time, or at least none that I saw!

How can you use this?
• Embrace cross-curricular opportunities – I’m going to do some map-making with them next time as there are a couple of examples in the book
• Games games games – pea football was brilliant
• Select books linked to children’s hobbies and interests

Read With Me

Follow the Leader: Setting A Positive Reading Example For Children

It’s news to nobody that as parents and guardians we have an enormous influence on our children’s behaviour. What is interesting is that they will follow the examples we set as readily, probably more so, than any instructions or advice we give. This means we need to set ourselves up as reading role models. It increases the likelihood of them engaging in books in a meaningful way far more than if we force them to sit and read without demonstrating through our own actions what an absolute joy a good book can be.

When they see us reading, children become curious about what we’re doing, about what has grabbed our attention in this manner. They want to join in, or else imitate, and it’s surprising how often me sitting with a book quickly results in the girls doing the same, independently. And, wow, when it happens, I just love that. One minute they’re thundering around, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake, they see me sitting quietly reading and the next minute all is quiet and we’re lost in our little worlds.

Goodness me, they are just cute as buttons when they’re seriously thumbing through their books, studying the pages with quiet concentration, enjoying the texts upside down and back to front. The little furrowed brows, the tracing of shapes and letters, the dramatic turning of a page, these things are a delight for me to surreptitiously watch.

You see, the time they spend sitting with a book on their own is just as important as the time I spend reading with them. They’re showing an interest without me overtly directing their attention. No, they’re not ‘reading’ in the traditional sense, but they’re following the narrative, inferring and deducing from the pictures, and getting a feel for independent exploration of texts. They have ownership over the activity, instilling good reading habits and increasing their confidence, all triggered by seeing a good example and wanting to imitate.

If I didn’t read and enjoy books, I am certain it would be an awful lot harder to convince them to do it, especially as they get older and begin to question what they are told. That’s why during the day I make sure that my girls see me reading regularly, whether it’s a novel, a magazine or something hideously practical like a tumble drier instruction booklet that may, just may, mean I don’t shrink any more clothes. I will continue to set this example as they grow, not just because I feel that I should, but because I want to.

If you aren’t already, I urge you to give it a try, especially if you’re noticing your little one becoming reluctant to engage with books. I know it’s hard to find time to sit down. I too feel the call of the washing up that needs to be done, the drier with its shrunken clothes that needs emptying, the dinner that needs making and the crumbs that need hoovering.

I also know that both they and I will benefit from a brief moratorium, a break in the bustle and mechanics of day to day life, to sit, read and think. My stillness quickly transfers to them and we all take a breath, have a read, escape reality for a bit and then charge headlong back into our day, having experienced something valuable and enjoyable.

Chalking Up Fun With Cave Baby

What did we do?
The weather was on our side yet again this morning so we headed outdoors once more. Today’s activity was based on Cave Baby, a beautiful book by perennial favourite Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Emily Gravett, which made it a prime candidate for an arty spring board activity.

If you’re unfamiliar with the story, poor bored Cave Baby gets into trouble when he gets hold of Cave Mum’s paintbrush and unleashes his inner artist. A very cross Cave Dad threatens Cave Baby with the ‘big brown bear’, a mysterious figure who looms large for the rest of the book.

As some of us have probably discovered, drawing where you’re not supposed to is an absolute joy for children so I decided to embrace the idea. I found:
Cave Baby
• Assorted relevant cuddly toys
• A paintbrush
• Chalks
…arranged them on a garden chair and called the kids.

We started the book with V and A using the props to act out various parts. Every time we got a mention of ‘the big, brown bear’ we held the bear aloft and shouted it together…amusing given that the only bear I could find was decidedly small and beige! We had lots of fun finding a suitable cave for the baby too.

At the point towards the end of the story when Cave Baby is again let loose with a paint brush, I gave the girls the chalks and let them go wild on the patio. I finished reading the book to them as they were drawing and loved seeing how A, being a little older, really took on the words and let them shape her drawings. They may not have been looking at the book anymore, but they were certainly still listening.

How did it go?
It took a little time to get them into the story, mostly because I made the mistake of setting up right next to the water play table and they could see their toys from yesterday floating enticingly. However, once they had a prop each, they were pulled in and took part enthusiastically. V particularly loved shouting ‘beeeeeaaaarrrrr’ at the appropriate points.

The chalks went down an absolute storm. I love the style of illustration in this book, especially the splashes of colour and was very excited to join in with the drawing! The patterns in particular grabbed A’s attention and as soon as she had the chalks she was drawing stripes and spots and zig zags.


As V wanted to play with the water shortly after the story finished, I gave her the paint brush, dipped it in the water and showed her how she could ‘paint’ on the floor with water. This was a decided hit and I had to hunt down a second paintbrush so they could both get involved. We also did hand footprints with the water; more authentic cave painting ideas!

An hour after I finished reading the book, they were still going strong with the chalks and water. I was required to inspect suns, moons, flowers, tomatoes, cave babies and even crisps they had drawn. They then moved onto the fence posts, which I’m dearly hoping will come clean.

Its’s a riot of colour in the garden, all inspired by Cave Baby’s antics, and we’ve chalked up another great activity!

How can you use this?
• As always, use props to bring the story to life
• Create pictures inspired by stories
• Embrace the ‘naughty’ behaviour of characters (in a controlled way!)
• Get involved – the girls loved my bearded bear picture

A tattered book is a loved book: play time with texts

One of the things I’ve loosened up on most regarding reading is how children should treat books. In the early days, I was forever lecturing my kids on how look after their books, issuing a whole host of orders. ‘Stop piling them up, they’re not building blocks. Stop jumping on them, they’re not stepping stones. Stop chewing them, they’re not food,’ and so on. I was so preoccupied with keeping them in pristine condition, it took me a while to see I was completely sucking the fun out of them.

It was only when sitting looking at my own books that something dawned on me: I was such a hypocrite!

You see, my favourite books are disaster zones. In some cases, I’m on second or third copies where the originals fell apart through years of hard use. Pages are ripped, folded, flecked with food or covered with annotations. Bindings are, well, not very binding anymore. Most importantly of all, this doesn’t affect my enjoyment of these books in the slightest; if anything, it adds to it. The sight of pages wrinkled with water where I dropped it in the bath make me smile. It shows I couldn’t put the thing down, not for a second, and here are the creases to prove it.

A big part of my problem was that many of the books my girls have were gifts and I hated to think of my little whirlwinds applying their trademark sledgehammer touch and ruining them, only for the gift-givers to find out. It took looking at my train wreck books to realise that it would be far worse for the givers to see their offerings in perfect condition, their pristine nature a tell-tale sign that they’ve just not been used. Because, let’s be honest, pretty much anything kids touch is going to get messy!

With these realisations in mind, I loosened my grip and embraced the idea that books aren’t relics, they’re toys. In our house, books are toys as much as the building blocks, trains, dolls and the ever-growing pile of plastic food. There are limits, of course: deliberate destruction is a big no no, but for the most part, they interact with their books free from a running commentary on how to treat them.

I want their books to be battered and tattered, loved and used. Instead of treating them like ornaments, books should be woven into the fabric of their play. Sure, they can be books; we can, and do, sit quietly and read them. But they can also be building blocks and stepping stones; we can build with them and leap between them. Literally and figuratively. If that means a few casualties along the way, so be it. If the odd ripped page is the sacrifice required for regular, joyful engagement with books, I’ll take that deal and I know my kids will too.

Five Top Tips for Maximum Story Time Fun

Battling to get children interested in story time is nothing new. There’s so much to do and see in their worlds, why would they want to sit still and listen? Here are five top tips to bring reading to life and ensure that they see the fun in story time in no time.

Props are such an easy way to add another dimension to story time. Take a quick flick through your chosen book and then think: what do we have to hand that links? Items of clothing, cuddly toys vaguely resembling characters, food that features, musical instruments and all manner of bits and bobs will leap to mind, then you simply grab a choice few and you’re set for an active reading session. Having something to physically engage with plays a huge part in bringing a story to life and ramping up the fun factor.

Where is your book set? You can often recreate or simply suggest the setting without too much hassle. Maybe it takes place in the garden; if so, shift story time outside. Got a story based in the woods? Find a tree! Snow a big feature? Grab a big white towel. Pirates on a ship? A laundry basket or box will serve you well. These little touches bring stories to life, immerse children in the experience and set their imaginations off in a big way.

Be Flexible
If inspiration strikes your child during story time, see where it takes you. Say you’re half way through a book about hide and seek and your little one decides that now is the time for a quick round of hiding and seeking themselves, go with it. They’ve been exploring characters, reading about the fun they’re having and now they want to put it into practice; that sounds like a successful engagement with a book. You can always come back to it a little later, but to rush the end of the book with a reluctant child is not going to be the best way forward for either of you. Follow the fun and you’ll both be happier for it!

Spring Board
Making books an integrated part of play is such a great way to make sure they’re exciting and engaging. As you’re reading, talk about what you could do after the story that is inspired by the content. Reading about princesses or knights? Make crowns or shields when you’re done. Reading about water or swimming? Why not go swimming or play with some water when the book is over? It doesn’t take much creative thought to come up with a whole host of activities related to any book you may be reading so bounce off the book into another fun activity. It will help your child to see just how much they can enjoy themselves, all thanks to a book.

Fun With Themes
Is it Father’s Day? Pick some Daddy focused books. Have a holiday fast approaching? Some books about the beach or travelling would be perfect. Christmas on the way? Dust off your jingle bells and get reading some Christmas classics. When children are excited about something in their lives, it’s a great idea to harness that enthusiasm and get them linking it to books and reading. If there’s no interesting event approaching, well make up your own theme. Grab a bunch of books about food and explore the cupboards. Gather books about fairies and go fairy hunting in the garden. Spotting common themes is a good skill for children to learn and a break from the ordinary always adds to the excitement.

The Crocodile Who Didn’t Like Water

What did we do?
We have amazing weather this morning so hit the garden again nice and early to have some fun with one of the girls’ favourite books, The Crocodile Who Didn’t Like Water.

Since the first read I have adored this book by Gemma Merino, about a little crocodile who just doesn’t enjoy playing in the water like his brothers and sisters, and A definitely feels the same way. It’s one of those we could easily just sit down and have a traditional story time with, and we frequently do, but I decided today to bring it to life in a different way.

I gathered together:
• A long forgotten wooden crocodile
• A dragon inflatable that’s been knocking around for years
• The girls’ water play table
The Crocodile Who Didn’t Like Water

…called the girls outside, filled the water table, showed them the book and the props and they got the idea straight away.

As we read, V and A stood up and acted out the story with the props. A kept dashing inside to grab extra props she knew would suit and we soon had:

• An army of building blocks playing the part of the little crocodile’s brothers and sisters
• A wooden stacking circle as a rubber ring
• A chair masquerading as a bath tub


How did it go?
This was a great activity. It was relatively easy to set up and so engaging for the kids. Using the water added an extra, tactile level of enjoyment and V was obsessed with how the crocodile (dragon!) would be feeling ‘cold’ and ‘wet’. The extra props A gathered and made use of showed how gripped by the story she was.

I managed the initial reading and four encores before retiring as narrator, leaving the book open for the girls to keep referring to; A is still out there now half an hour later acting out bits of the story.

How can you use this?
• Introduce the sense of touch when a text gives the opportunity
• Waterplay will enhance just about anything for most kids so if a character is washing, swimming or in the rain, introduce water if possible
• Blow the figurative dust off an old favourite and find a new way to enjoy it
• Take books outside – the girls seem so excited to see their books in a new setting

Laura's Lovely Blog

There’s a Tiger in the Garden

What did we do?
It’s a gorgeous sunny day so I decided to find an outdoorsy book to have some fun with. Lizzy Stewart’s lovely There’s a Tiger in the Garden was the perfect choice. If you’re not familiar, Nora is bored and Grandma reveals there may be a tiger living in the garden. Sceptical Nora goes for a walk in the ‘boring garden’ and (spoiler alert) eventually finds the tiger.

I grabbed:
• A cuddly tiger
There’s a Tiger in the Garden
…and headed for the great outdoors. It was really hot and V was tired so for once she was happy to sit with a book in the shade.

We played with the tiger and compared him to the cover before reading with lots of theatrical tiger waving and hiding under and around the sun bed.

As soon as we’d finished, we played hide and seek with the tiger, with V covering her eyes and counting to ten (and definitely peeking!) while I ‘hid’ the tiger in various parts of the garden. She adored this and, had she been less willing to sit at the start, that would have been how I first started the activity to tire her a bit before sitting to read.

How did it go?
Absolutely brilliantly. V adored the book and loved having a prop to engage with as we read. Once we’d finished hide and seek, she went and sat straight down with the book again and explored it on her own for a bit. She’s currently pushing the tiger toy round in a buggy! There was no mess, we had a lovely 15 minutes of focused play outside and a long-neglected toy was brought to life through the joy of reading.

How can you use this?
• Consider what toys you have that will compliment books you’d like to read
• Match up simple games to the storyline – there’s no hide and seek in the book, but the idea of looking for the tiger was close enough to give us a spring board activity
• Choose books for settings – garden books in the garden, beach books at the beach – not always, obviously, just when opportunity allows

Fox’s Socks Dress Up

What did we do?

This morning we breathed new life into Fox’s Socks with a bit of dressing up. If you’re not familiar with this Julia Donaldson lift-the-flap book, we join ‘poor old Fox’ in his quest to find his missing socks, uncovering a range of other garments in unlikely places along the way.

In no time at all I grabbed:
• Vest
• Shirt
• Hat
• Socks
• Bow tie (a long-neglected relic from hub’s Christmas do!)
Fox’s Socks
…and we were off.

For extra fun factor, I used some items of my own rather than the girls’. The novelty and cuteness of dressing up in mummy’s clothes has yet to wear off.

It was super simple. Each time Fox would find an item of clothing and dress in it, the girls would dress up too.

How did it go?
Once we got started, the girls LOVED it. It’s worth noting that if you’re doing this with multiple kids, you might want multiple items. We did have a brief foot-stamp-off as both wanted to wear the socks, but this was quickly resolved by a trip to Daddy’s sock drawer!

No sooner had we finished than A was demanding that we do it again. Fantastic! Exactly the response I wanted.

Four run throughs later, V vanished, returning with Room on the Broom, which we read while A marched around in full Fox attire. She wasn’t interested in Room on the Broom and I wasn’t going to force her to listen. A, clearly still inspired by Fox’s Socks, then fetched Hide and Seek Pig, another in the series, which we briefly examined (she didn’t want to read it) before embarking on a round of ‘Hide and Seek.’

It was also interesting to see how we ended up with three Donaldson/Scheffler books, two of which the girls selected. It shows how early kids could be aware of styles of language and pictures. Something to think about for future activities, definitely.

If I’d have just tried to read Fox’s Socks with them, I know it would either have been to a grudging audience, humouring mummy before they are released again, or it would have just failed entirely. Instead, with a dash of playtime added to the mix, it was a lovely half an hour, with minimal clearing up and fun memories for us all.

How can you use this?
There are so many ways to apply this.
• Kids can dress up as characters
• If the characters are dressing they can do so too
• If you’ve got book with uniformed characters, see what’s in the dressing up box

Let me know in the comments if you gave it a go and how it went.
Thanks for reading!