Making “Story Time” Possible

“Together, reading stories, giggling, nuzzling, reading, listening, close in my lap, just the two of us…that’s not how it goes with my Jimmy. He pulls the books off the shelves – plop – and wanders away, leaving a big pile. He doesn’t crawl into my lap, he crawls out. Escape. He flips pages and opens and closes books. He does this over and over and over and doesn’t look at the pictures, or the words, or ME! Story time seems like just another battle. Where do I even begin? How do I start?”

So many of us parents, teachers and family have been right where this mother is; frustrated and wondering how to engage our young child in books. And while that’s our end goal, sometimes we just have to back up and start with the basics – getting connected.

STOP, take a breath and WATCH. What is it that interests Jimmy? What is it that creates calm, interest and attention? Get into his head by carefully following his lead. Is it the flutter of the pages, the snap of the closing, the plop of the books on the floor, the colors, Thomas, Waldo, SpongeBob? Maybe it’s the alphabet letters. Pay attention, and you will discover it. Every time.

Lots of kids like to repeat the same actions over and over; it’s comforting, familiar. For some, it’s hard to change the action or the routine. Maybe Jimmy can’t come up with a new plan because he’s not flexible in his thinking. Perhaps he wants his own space – sharing space is not in his repertoire yet. Take a moment and observe, assess and see what his natural interests may be and honor his boundaries.

SHARE SPACE: Enter, come closer, come on down to the floor or to your child’s level. Don’t wait for him to crawl up into your lap or the arm chair. Hang there with him for awhile and see if he stays. Gradually come a little closer. Go to him and begin to create a level of intimacy at his comfort level. Move slowly to one side, to another or be in front. If your child stays, this is working. If he retreats, it isn’t. “But my son is so adorable, I just want to scoop him up and hug him,” you say. Restrain yourself (same goes for Grandma and Auntie Sue). Invading someone’s space, even if intentions are good, doesn’t feel good to anyone. Let closeness develop on his terms.

JOIN IN: With caution and intent, begin by imitating what your child is doing. Move together. If he is opening and closing books, you can get your own book and do the same thing. Offer him a book to plop, turn a page, open the book after he closes it. Imitate a sound the book makes or your child makes. Maybe he will take a peek at you, maybe a grin. See how long he will stay with you.

MIX IT UP: Once you’ve entered his world and he’s liking it, it’s time to grow. Add your own things, but start small. Change your position to his other side. Insert your own sounds, or flip the book over when it hits the floor. You make an intentional move and see if he responds. Interactions start out this way. See if you can get more responses going as you slowly, respectfully, adapt your play. Because it’s all about back and forth interactions, right?

His investment in you, what you’re doing, and how you’ll respond next is really what you crave. So begin in the place he already is. You’ll be surprised at how quickly you are connecting with your child, and how much fun you’re having.

After all, this is up to us. You, as an adult, are able to adapt “story time” to engage your child fully. Those moments are where you start being truly together. Together… with books. Keep trying, repeat and repeat. Each time you conduct your unique version of “story time,” introduce something new – point to a letter, label a color. Slowly you will find that the book plopping game has developed into a 15-minute reading session with your child delighting in every page.

Author: Margie

Margie, MA, OTR, is an occupational therapist through the Minneapolis Public Schools. She is dedicated to engaging children with autism and helping parents achieve that engagement in everyday moments. Read her full bio here.

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