Stories are an important part of healthy child development. Throughout human history, and whether delivered via the written word or orally, stories have played a critical role in language development, knowledge-sharing and imparting life lessons.

Although it may seem intuitive upon reflection, stories and books change as your baby, toddler or child grows. These changes mirror and mark key stages in your child’s development and learning.

Books for babies

Babies learn language through observation and building up a series of connections between stimuli, context, intent and meaning.

Books for babies tend to focus on simple objects, characters and colours. They may feature different textures or themselves be different, interesting shapes.

The experience of reading a book with your baby is as important as the content of the book itself – if not more so. Babies will respond to the physical act of sitting down and reading with you, and they enjoy listening to your voice when you read aloud or sing and rhyme.

Books for toddlers

Stories for toddlers often introduce a range of everyday objects and processes. This mirrors your toddler’s increasing contact with and ability to manipulate the world around them. Books may have additional complexity, such as different moving parts and pictures hidden under flaps.

Subjects often include a character experiencing a range of different things, such as types of food, animals or household objects. They may also depict experiences familiar to your toddler, such as bath time, playing at the beach or going to the zoo. These stories provide an opportunity for your toddler to expand their vocabulary – you can compare the story objects with their real life equivalents to further contextualise the language for your toddler.

Concepts such as basic counting may be introduced, and your toddler may be able to recognise words and say them aloud – even when they see the words represented elsewhere.

Books for young children

Books for young children often introduce characters navigating social situations. This is a way of reflecting the experiences your child may be having in their own life, and it helps to socialise them and reinforce messages about, for example, how to treat other people, look after animals, stay safe and protect the environment.

Your child may be able to read parts of or whole books at this point – if they can’t yet, they will soon be able to make the connections between the written and spoken words. Your child may ask you questions about why characters did this, or how they did that. You can also ask your child questions about the characters to encourage their imagination and empathy.

Often humour and fantasy make their way into books for pre-schoolers and young children, with animals, monsters or dinosaurs standing in for humans. Nevertheless, the characters remain clearly identifiable, and often their depicted experiences – like their first day at school – are comparable to real life.

Children will also often take the characters out of the stories and imagine their own narratives for the characters. They can do this by extending and projecting the story beyond what they saw on the pages, depicting the characters through art or by using their toys to construct experiences of their own for the characters.

Children and non-fiction books

Some children are fascinated by understanding the world around them. They may enjoy equally, or even prefer, non-fiction books to story books. Books about the world (especially animals), dinosaurs, machines, the human body and outer space are a natural extension to the process your child begins as a curious toddler.

It’s entirely normal for some children to almost obsess over a subject – dinosaurs or cars, for example. Most of the time this is a phase, but sometimes this fascination can extend into adolescence and – in some cases – may even lead into a lifelong career!

Make story time a priority

  • Set aside the time each day to sit down with your baby, toddler or child and read a book.
  • Minimise any distractions by turning off the TV and leaving your phone in another room.
  • Try to arrange your position so that there is an imaginary triangle between yourself, your child and the book – this allows your child to see your facial expressions and observe how your mouth forms sounds.
  • Older toddlers and children often settle on a favourite book that they want to read again and again; this may be because they enjoy the feeling of knowing what’s coming, or they identify with something in the story.
  • Try and read in the same quiet, comfortable place each day so that your attention is focused. If possible, have a bookshelf close by to encourage your child to continue reading if they choose.
  • Story time can play part of your pre-bedtime routine ritual, and it can be a handy way to reduce screen time before bed and relax before sleep.