Sharing stories with young children is a great way to develop communication and let little ones know that they're valued. Babies are finding ways to communicate with us from the minute they arrive in the world. They can communicate through facial gestures, sounds like coos and gurgles, as well as through their body language. So even if they don't know the words or have the language skills, they're already learning to 'speak' to us; letting us know how they feel, expressing wishes and making choices.
When we share stories with babies and young children, we are engaging in a two-way communication process. We may be the one bringing the words on the page to life, but how our little ones react to stories also helps us understand their preferences and learn more about their interests. Taking the time to tune in to our children, looking for cues and responding appropriately is key to letting our children know that we care and that we're taking their views on board. Is baby gurgling, pointing, or pulling themselves physically closer to the book? Maybe it's a bright illustration, or the sound we make as we share a particular page that draws them in – if we follow our baby's lead we will be rewarded with their positive response. And we shouldn't worry if our baby's response to book sharing is less encouraging at times. If they turn away or don't look interested, they could be telling us that it's not for them right now. Perhaps they're too tired - a calming song, rhyme or cuddle may be in order instead.
Slightly older babies and children may show preferences by taking control of the physical book; turning back to a page they want us to share with them again (and again!) or pointing to the pictures that interest them. They could also start choosing the stories that they want us to share together - picking up books that appeal or closing one book before we've made it to the end and choosing something different. Responding to these preferences and actions during book sharing is hugely empowering for children. It helps them begin to understand that they have rights, and that we, as their mum, dad, or carer, respect these rights. It also offers the perfect opportunity for us to support their language development. Extending our conversations with children around their preferred stories or pictures is more likely to result in a higher quality language learning experience.
A child's sense of their own developing agency – independence to make their own decisions – is something to be celebrated. Young children can't always be in the driving seat, but book sharing is a wonderful opportunity for them to be more in control. We can let children take the lead on book sharing, give them the independence to choose the books, and make sure that we respond to our baby's non-verbal cues when we share books together. By doing so, we're not only allowing them to express themselves, but we're also letting them know that their opinion is valued and respected. We're giving them a voice.
And just as importantly, we're encouraging in them a love of books – hopefully something that will grow with them through childhood and beyond.