When the first installment of the Harry Potter series was introduced in the summer of 1997, children around the world became instant bookworms. Even kids who previously loathed reading were drawn to J.K Rowling’s wildly creative world of wizardry and witchcraft. Suddenly, they developed an unquenchable thirst for the written word.

Parents and teachers were thrilled with this trend, as it forced kids to step away from their beloved screens and pick up a book, widely seen as a much more “positive activity.” But encouraging kids to read isn’t just about positive engagement. Reading contributes heavily to children’s cognitive development, as well as their social and mental health.

Pleasure-rich stories develop knowledge and interests, and encourage curiosity, imagination, the enrichment of the child’s vocabulary, and the development of their concentration. While aiding emotional and social growth, stories can also help solve social dilemmas that are common in a child’s world, such as anxiety, trauma, and eating disorders. Through the mediation of the adult, we can use the meaningful content found in a good story to tap into the child’s internal narratives and discuss the problems plaguing him in a non-threatening manner, as well as give him the tools to deal with similar problems later on.

Over the years, the experiences of the teachers and speech and occupational therapists with whom I have worked have demonstrated that story time is an invaluable educational tool for children of all backgrounds and abilities. As such, story time should be taken seriously.

For starters, I believe that several things can be done to maximize the benefits of story time:

  • The selection of the book should be made by the child from a variety of topics that interest him.
  • For children with ADHD, reading should be framed as a relaxing activity. As such, the surroundings should make the child feel safe and calm. It is also advisable to choose short stories that are not packed with details.
  • For children with other developmental difficulties, such as understanding, communication, limited vision, hearing, etc., it is recommended to enhance the reading experience by adding “props” (i.e. actual items found in the book) to the narrative. These additional elements will help the child internalize the story as well as the experience.

Through my work as an Occupational Therapist for ALEH, Israel’s largest and most advanced network of residential facilities for children with severe intellectual, developmental and physical disabilities, I have found that disabled children benefit greatly from stories, just like other children. It’s really just a matter of tweaking the delivery.

For example, Rinat Mizrahi, a special education teacher in ALEH’s Gedera facility says that she tells the story of Noah’s Ark by having her students put animals and figurine people into a small box. To illustrate the flood, she makes sound effects with tape and buckets. Illustrations make it possible to follow the story, and they “read” through a special book that combines illustrations, images and symbols. This method is another way to expose these children to the world around them.

Another example is “library illustration,” a method developed by Tammy Guttman (M.A), the pedagogical coordinator at ALEH’s Jerusalem facility. In this method, each book is paired with a large case that contains “book aids” such as dolls, pictures, symbols, and other tools to help the audience “visualize” what is happening in the story.

Again, the experiences of professionals in the field suggest that those who read for pleasure demonstrate an intrinsic desire to constantly re-engage with the learning process. Additionally, reading for pleasure reveals a predisposition to lifelong learning, increased cognitive development, and social and mental mobility for all children.

By making reading for pleasure a habit, we have the ability to help children develop a sense of wonder, teach them how to dream big and provide them with the cognitive and social tools they need to reach their greatest potentials.

It’s time to turn off the TV, put away the tablets, and take story time seriously.