The busy toddler: Why walking around and talking during book reading is ok!

Unlike my first two children, my toddler will very rarely sit for a book—he’s moving all over the place while I read. Does this mean he’s not interested in books? Should I be worried?

This mom’s question is a good one, and we’ve heard from lots of parents with this same worry. But the good news is that for the toddler, sitting still doesn’t necessarily mean he isn’t “listening,” and therefore gaining the kinds of skills and knowledge that we know are important for later reading success. So while it might be a bit frustrating for any parents trying to “read” the book to the toddler who seems to be all over the place, when you know what to expect, and when you understand how this sometimes-chaotic reading experience still builds a toddler’s reading skills, it could make trying to stick to a daily reading routine less stressful for all!

So what does story time look and feel like with toddlers?

Toddlers are busy! So when you get comfortable in the chair with one of your child’s favorite books and start reading, your toddler may start in your lap, but then before too long, begin to move all around and appear not to be listening at all. He might wander between the pictures that are on the pages of the book being read, and whatever is interesting him on the floor. But you can feel good about the fact that you are working toward getting him to sit and listen for a longer period of time, and meanwhile, your questions and comments about the characters or the book topic can keep him engaged in the reading experience. Plus, those books with appealing pictures and hands-on activities can help keep him coming back to the book, and maybe even onto your lap! The fact is, even if it doesn’t seem that way, he’s likely listening and actually developing reading skills.

You can see that your child is developing reading skills at this age when he brings you or any adult a book to read —maybe even at the certain time of day when you usually read to him. And when he is lifting the flaps to feel different textures on the page, or pushing buttons on the pages, or showing signs of having a few favorite books, you can see first hand that his reading skills are developing, and he’s beginning to be comfortable with this world of print.

So even if he’s not following the story from beginning to end, what’s most important to remember is that this sometimes-less-than-relaxing story time is part of the path to strong reading: By continuing to read to your child during this active period, you will help him build up the skills he needs, including an understanding of how books work, the words and ideas he will need to communicate and learn about the world, and the kinds of social-emotional and cognitive skills that will eventually get him to a time when he can sit and pay attention to books from start to finish (as well as sympathize with characters and persevere when the book is hard to understand). And of course, this is just one stage of the road to reading: we encourage parents to track and monitor children’s skill growth from birth so that no timeframe goes by without the steady accumulation of these crucial reading-related skills.

So what should we all tell this mom who asked the question? Keep at it! Reading experiences with those busy toddlers aren’t just important – they are critical – albeit a bit different than what many parents might expect. To find out more about the kinds of things you can do to help your child engage with books during the toddler stage and at all ages, sign up at!

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