In which our reluctant hero discovers that there’s more to life than books. But not much more.
Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.
This week is National Storytelling Week. Coincidentally, it is also the first week this year that I’ve started reading a book that doesn’t feature princesses or a monkey that has lost his mum. And what better excuse for the evil natured programme planners at CBeebies Towers to spice things up by wheeling out Tom Hardy (whoever he is) to do “Bedtime Stories” for the second time in a month. Can’t you give us poor dads a break?
21st century almost-grown-ups are apparently reading more than ever. Sadly, for many of us, this is largely noise, cranked up to eleven, from the endless inane soundbites and clickbait that we are bombarded with during our waking hours.
For may parents, the exception to this involuntary rule is the bedtime story. Children’s fiction may not be Shakespeare, but at least it contains coherent chunks that span more than 140 characters.
Story time is often presented as an idyllic parenting ritual, where sleepy-eyed little people hang on mum or dad’s every word before cuddles and the nightly lecture about not getting out of bed until the sun is “up up” on the Gro-clock.
And, to be fair, it usually is. It’s the bouncing on the sofa, emptying the re-stocked toy cupboard, arguing over telly programmes, refusing to go upstairs, splashing in the bath, refusing to brush teeth, suddenly becoming hungry seconds after eventually brushing teeth, jumping in the wrong bed and arguing over who’s turn it is for mum to do the stories beforehand that’s the problem. Every. Single. Night. But that’s not the story’s fault, is it?
We read to our children because it’s important. Important as part of the bedtime routine. Important as it’s usually calm one on one time doing a shared thing, which is nice whether you’ve been out at work all day and missed everything else or not. Important as it fuels the imagination in a way that telly just can’t. Important as it can help increase literacy and learning in the long term, and help shape the next generation of cool kids that hang around in libraries and Waterstones at a certain age.
But what chance have we got of keeping our children interested in reading once they can do it by themselves?
My book is on my tablet which is convenient for commuting. But with the tablet comes distractions. There’s enough games, music, films and telly to provide a lifetime of entertainment and the temptation for me, an adult-ish man, not to read is often overwhelming. Children hardly stand a chance.
Creativity requires time and patience, and often rises from boredom. Proper boredom rarely happens with so many distractions and the constant flitting from one thing to another must have a negative effect on our attention span. (Ooh, look… an aeroplane.) If we can’t concentrate long enough to read a book then we’re unlikely to do so long enough to write one. At this rate we’ll have run out of authors by the 22nd century. Perhaps we just won’t need any by then.
However, all is not lost in the battle to save the humble story.
Making time to read with children is the obvious first step. I’m finding that as our eldest is growing up and able to read some words, she is showing far greater interest in the actual stories and is asking questions about them. Which is great when they’re about things that I know about or can make up, less so if querying holes in the plot or anything Disney related, two concepts that sort of come hand in hand.
Technology, used in the right way, may help too. Love them or loathe them, the gadgets are not going away, so why not give them a big cuddle? The tablet is not just your fifty quid babysitter from Amazon but a seven inch personal tutor too.
While I’m in no hurry to ditch the old fashioned hardbacks at bedtime, there are plenty of alternatives for the bits in between. We have a free app with old stories like The Gingerbread Man on that our eldest likes, and the CBeebies Storytime app is excellent entertainment for a variety of ages. Even Dr Seuss is available for a couple of quid and there’s loads of phonics apps to help develop reading skills too. Sneaking some fun learning into playtime has to be better than another half hour of American children opening Kinder eggs on YouTube, right? I reckon that our two year old will be reading Dostoyevsky by the time he gets to nursery at this rate.
There’s creative things to try too. After we read Alice in Wonderland one bedtime, our daughter discussed using our imaginations, being a central theme of the story. She was adamant that she couldn’t make up her own stories until I suggested that changing bits of her favourite story may be a good way to start. So she had a go. Ok, “The Bear Who Came to Tea” may result in a lawsuit if it ever gets published, but she really enjoyed doing it and there were sparks of proper creativity going on, even at such a young age.
If I can nurture this creativity, I reckon that I can handover blog writing duties by the summer. After all, banging the same old rubbish out each week with a few words and ideas changed is all that I do. In the meantime, there’s always Tom Hardy for her to watch on telly with all of the thirty and fortysomething old girls across the land.