The Greatest Gift for Children Is Time Spent Reading Aloud

What’s the simplest and greatest gift we can give a child? According to Meghan Cox Gurdon, one of our speakers on parenting, it’s spending time reading aloud with them. This ancient, almost magical ritual allows a child to travel on the sound of the human voice to places they’ve never been before. Gurdon’s eloquent book, The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in an Age of Distraction, will inspire you to set aside time every day to read aloud with your child—and stick to the habit well past the picture-book years.

In her book, Gurdon explains how reading aloud has an impact on children out of all proportion to the time spent. Cognitive studies, for instance, have found that the picture-book experience gives young children exactly what they need to develop their brain architecture. Listening to a parent’s voice while looking at pictures engages a child’s deep brain networks—and also has a calming physiological effect, lowering stress levels for both parent and child. This soothing social experience not only helps children develop focus and concentration, but also offers them the possibility of magical escape, of stepping outside the rest of life. Picture books engage children in the rich, complex vocabulary of literature and the beauty of art, as well as connecting them to poems and stories many generations have known and loved. Lastly, reading picture books aloud is an engaged, human experience; a parent can pause if a child has questions or wants to linger over the details in an illustration in a way no video or audio book can. As the children’s book author Anna Dewdney wrote, “By reading with a child, we are teaching that child to be human.”

Gurdon documents how time spent reading together is not only an extraordinary way to help children to flourish when their brains are growing the fastest, but also one of the strongest indicators of a child’s prospects in life. Sharing books from infancy builds a child’s receptive vocabulary (what she can understand), which can be as much as three years ahead of her expressive vocabulary (what she can say). And the ability tounderstand what adults are saying is a crucial skill when children begin school, as almost all instruction in the early years is oral, not written. Listening to stories helps children develop a sustained and prolonged attention span—and research shows that the ability to focus and pay attention in the early years correlates with academic achievement at age 21. Perhaps most importantly, a habit of reading aloud brings parents and children together in a comforting way, reinforcing their relationships. Drawing on her personal experience as a mother of five, Gurdon describes how the time she set aside to read with her children became a family ritual that paid dividends into the teenage years and beyond.

Gurdon is the longtime reviewer of children’s literature at The Wall Street Journal, and The Enchanted Hour includes lists in the back of adventurous books that will entrance and enthrall all ages. We highly recommend Gurdon’s book as inspiration and a resource for your own read-aloud ritual.

Happy reading!