Kids who enjoy reading? Imagine that…

The toy she picked after reporting the three books she'd read. It made her happy. 

The toy she picked after reporting the three books she'd read. It made her happy. 

Great little rant in the Boston Globe magazine about summer reading programs libraries have.

"In June, my 6-year-old son got very excited about our town’s summer reading program, in which kids who read for a certain number of hours vote for a movie that gets screened at the library. For several days, he reminded me we had to track the time we spent reading and check boxes off his chart so he could participate. But then he spent time with a California friend whose library’s summer reading program offers passes to Disneyland. A free movie suddenly seemed lame by comparison. He lost interest in the program and, for a while, in books, too.

Across the Commonwealth, public libraries encouraged schoolchildren to read this summer by offering prizes, often related to the big screen or sports, for those who met the minimum number of hours or books. In Arlington, we had the free movie. In Boston, if you read three books, you were entered into a raffle for Red Sox tickets. Maynard’s raffle was for a new bicycle.

There’s nothing wrong with movies, or sports, or amusement parks — or with programs aimed at spurring children to read. What’s wrong is the underlying message that books are a chore and that kids who endure them deserve payback.

Why, I wonder, are civic programs framed around this assumption? Is it because most kids don’t like books? Because adults don’t like them, either? Or because parents and educators and even doctors talk so much about The Importance of Reading that we have forgotten it once was (and still could be) a widely enjoyed activity?

Couldn’t agree more. But also: What else did you expect? The entire North American educational culture has been slowly but surely moving in the direction of making everything related to learning a chore for many long years now, with the result that kids grow up not valuing playing with their imaginations because that won’t be on the test. It’s been so long now that many of those young kids’ parents and teachers were raised that way. Kids are surrounded by people who think learning and reading is a hassle to get over with so we can get back to sucking screen.

Children start pre-school programs earlier and earlier; it’s not uncommon for two- or three-year-olds to begin their pre-K education in school-like settings where parents very much expect they will learn skills that will give them a leg up when the time comes to start junior kindergarten. Once there, little kids are swallowed up by an educational machine that makes them sit in rows and pay attention to what the teacher is saying. Oh sure, there’s play involved. But the playing is relentlessly didactic, because the adults involved worry about educational achievements above just about everything else.

I’m all for educational achievements. But they don’t come from programs designed to measure and track children on flowcharts designed by a committee of educationators. Real learning happens when children themselves want to learn, in settings where their natural curiosity hasn’t been dulled by overly didactic programs.

In plain English: If you stick your toddlers and young children in a classroom and make them drill (with a song! and a dance! or a screen!) until they can regurgitate something measurable, you will kill their natural curiosity and make them think that everything you want them to do is a chore.

I have three daughters whom I’ve been homeschooling since birth. They are now 10, “almost 9” and 7. If they went to school they’d be entering grades 6, 4 and 2. But if you heard them speak or read out loud, you’d think the eldest was half-way through high school already. Both parents are writers, and we both put a lot of emphasis on reading, writing, and oral expression. This is not to boast (well, OK, but not much), but to illustrate my point.

My kids don’t have to sit around learning things for much longer than 60 or 90 minutes a day, which we tend to break up in chunks of 20-30 minutes, in between which they are allowed to stretch or play or read. They don’t have goals to meet, as far as their educational achievement goes. I do, but they don’t know what the goals are. They just keep learning stuff until I send them off. They’ve never had to take a formal test in their lives, and I believe it’s one of the main reasons why they are still excited to learn things, especially if it involves story-telling. (Math and piano practice, not so much.)

When they are not made to sit down and listen (i.e. the bulk of their average day), they are left to play by themselves. We don’t tell them what to do, we let them figure out their own games. They also read a lot. For fun, I mean. They have books we assign to them (we loosely follow a classical education curriculum and their assigned reading books tend to be classics of literature), but they are free to pick anything they like for their free reading. They have library cards and they use them like little fiends.

Our local library branch has one of those summer reading clubs where the kids earn stickers and small toys every time they finish a book – and then they get entered into a draw for a free book. I never pressured my kids to join it, but they’re all enrolled. And they love nothing better than to rush there to tell Kelly, the friendly and incredibly patient custodian of the kids’ section, about the books they’ve read.

They don’t do it to get the toys and stickers, although they enjoy those. Nobody would read three novels just to get stickers. If baseball tickets and Disney passes aren’t enough to entice non-reading kids to get lost in a book for fun, stickers certainly won’t do it. But my kids really do enjoy the reading, precisely because to them it’s not a chore.

One important point: with very rare exceptions we do not insist that they finish a book that doesn’t interest them. Instead we ask them to explain why they don’t like it. The explanation does not have to convince us but it must be coherent and grammatically correct. Some books are terribly dull, and often it’s a matter of taste whether we like a style or not. Sometimes a person isn’t ready for a particular title, for no obvious reason, and they’ll like it a lot a year later. Heck, it took me three tries and a dozen years finally to enjoy Les Misérables, who am I to push Little Women on kids who aren’t, at the moment, digging it?

Fortunately, for parents of children who are not so keen on reading, there is a remedy, and it involves getting your kids immersed in stories. Here’s how you do it: If they are young (it helps a lot to start this when they’re babies), read stories out loud to them. Not just bedtime stories either. Real stories that involve character development, heroes slaying beasts and people succeeding despite long odds. When our kids were little we read all the Dr. Seuss books to them, over and over again. We eventually graduated to the Narnia Chronicles, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Swallows and Amazons, that sort of thing. It didn’t matter that the kids were too little to understand the story. The point was for them to get used to hearing stories. To fill their little heads with sounds, poetry, rhythm, and images. We didn’t shy away from stories that featured bad people and tragedies. Real life is full of those and little ones need to know this, provided the stories make moral sense and preferably end well, because nightmares are no fun.

Nowadays we still read out loud to them. We also let them listen to audiobooks until their ears fall off. They now insist on doing some of the reading we do themselves, which is something we encourage because it lets them practice speaking properly and also because it gives us a chance to spot problematic words and correct their pronunciation where needed. We let them watch movies (not educational TV programs; those are banned around here), and every now and then we’ll pick up a screenplay and act it out together. Macbeth is a favorite; you should see the delight they take in impersonating those witches.

The result of all this is that my kids love being immersed in stories. When they play freely they often re-enact movies they’ve watched, and they have their own parallel Harry Potter universe. Their imaginations are engaged and they eagerly seek out new stories.

It’s never too late to engage your children in good storytelling. But you have to do it with them. Kids have a very annoying habit of ignoring what we say and paying attention to what we do. If they never see us excited about a story, they’ll just think we’re trying to get rid of them when we send them to read. Watch movies together and discuss them – play with alternate endings, ask them how they’d want certain characters to behave instead, and see where their imagination takes them. Don’t expect too much at first. Treat imagination like a muscle; if your kids have already spent a few years in a school system that privileges measurable achievements over free play, they’ll need some practice. But the payoff is amazingly worthwhile.

Plus you’ll save loads of money on Disney passes. 

Quiet lake

Storm approaching