We ask headmistress Jenny Mackay at Hawkesdown House School in Kensington to give us the low-down on why reading your child a bedtime story is important for their development. Jenny also recommends her top five bedtime story books for nursery and preparatory school children.

Why read at bedtime?

Sharing the magic of the bedtime story is a tradition that parents should endeavour to protect. In the fast paced world we now inhabit, parents are having to juggle the demands of work, the needs of children and spouses, and the need to replenish one’s own resources. The outcome is nearly always feeling time poor and overly tired, yet it is even more necessary to find time to connect with our children. Reading to a child at bedtime can become a wonderfully restorative space to stimulate your child’s imagination whilst reconnecting you to a place of wonder, energy and liveliness that can often recharge depleted batteries!

Reading strengthens the bond between parent and child

Thankfully, reading to a child is by no means a chore. Reading together at bedtime is known to strengthen the bond between parent and child. Whilst it opens up a child’s imagination as they start to make sense of the world, it also reduces stress. The University of Sussex conducted a study that found that reading relaxes the muscles and lowers the heart rate, often reducing stress by up to 68%; so it is wonderfully calming activity for pregnant mums, those bringing up a young family, and children settling down to sleep.

Reading stories with your children improves cognitive development

Being exposed to the wonderful world of stories from a young age strengthens cognitive development and helps children develop their narrative comprehension and mental images. It will also prepare children for nursery and school; in many ways it gives them a head start. Words are a gateway to so many places, real and imaginary. Getting to know and recognise letter sounds, words and language from an early age is key to ensuring success in learning as they get older. Every teacher out there will corroborate that children who read more extensively become better writers, and better writers, in turn, become better readers. The research is out there – one will not flourish without the other. Through positive modelling, parents can teach their child to value reading, to develop a love of books, to light the fire to their imagination, while also developing and strengthening emotional and social development.

Make time for reading – not just at bedtime

Creating time for reading is vitally important but it does not solely have to happen at bedtime. Making dens from blankets and throws around the house, sharing favourite picture books inside a tent by torchlight or reading over the dinner table can all make for a valuable experience – for the child and the parent. The National Literacy Trust’s ‘Words for Life’ webpage gives parents guidance and suggestion for each year of a child’s life up to 11. If your child is of school age you will be familiar with World Book Day; an event celebrated annually. In 2017, for example, the theme was to read in unusual places and this generated image after image of children reading in extreme locations. These are halcyon days and capturing special moments to share a love of reading will stay with a child all the way through to adulthood.

Top 5 Bedtime Reading Picture Books

You Can Never Run Out of Love, Helen Docherty and Ali Pye

The Mist Monster, Kirsti Beautyman

The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark, Jill Tomlinson

Ruby’s Worry, Tom Percival

The Tear Thief, Carol Ann Duffy and Nicoletta Ceccoli

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When is it okay to stop bedtime stories?

A worrying study by YouGov for Scholastic in recent years revealed that many parents stop reading to their children when they become independent readers; one in five of the parents actually stopped reading to their child before the age of nine. Reading together, at bedtime or other times, should not stop too early in a child’s life or once parents feel they are independent readers. Ideally, it should continue until they are at least 11. Reading stories that are beyond the child’s reading level has a massive impact on their success in education and children, regardless of age, still need special one to one time with parents. The perfect time for this will always be when parents are putting them down for the night.

Books or Kindles?

This is akin to the Marmite debate: you either love it or hate it. If you value the touch and feel of a book, you will want to impart the joy by leafing through the pages of a favoured book with your child. You will want them to look at the illustrations and the words dancing across the page without blue light coming back at them. If you prefer kindles or iPads, you will appreciate having a wealth of storybooks at your fingertips without the need for bookshelves, however, it may just keep your little charges up at night. There is some research to suggest that exposing a person to blue light (short wavelength light commonly emitted by digital devices) can suppress the body’s release of melatonin, a hormone that helps to regulate sleep. If there are illustrations to accompany the story, parents could have a battle on their hands to stop children looking at them on a device, which defeats one of the aims of the bedtime story – to help the children settle down to sleep in the first place! That said, reading is reading and, if a child is being read to, it should not matter whether it comes from a book, a kindle or a tablet, though the fate of the independent bookshop may be in your hands though!

Why make time?

There will always be something that keeps parents from reading to their children at bedtime: late nights at work, a long commute or just being too tired at the end of a very full day raising a young family. But the benefits far outweigh all the negatives. Find the time. Read to them. Encourage them to foster a love of reading and it will reap rewards – plenty of them, for the child and the parent. If they see you enjoying reading, they are bound to follow. If it worked for you when you were a child, it will be no different for the next generation. They won’t be children for long, so seize these moments while you can. And if you can keep the bookshops and libraries flourishing in these stark times for retailers – so much the better!

By Jenny Mackay, Headmistress at Hawkesdown House School, a Preparatory and Nursery School in Kensington for girls and boys from 2 – 11 years of age.

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