BY Meredith Flory

On my birthday last year, I was very pregnant, it was storming outside and I just wanted to curl up with a good book. However, unlike my first pregnancy, I had an energetic toddler with cabin fever on my hands. I wracked my brain for ways to make lying around more appealing to a two-year-old without invoking the use of the television and I realized that it might be time to enjoy that mainstay of childhood: the pillow fort.  

I cleared off a table, covered it with a sheet and underneath we stacked pillows, blankets, books and stuffed animals. While my widening belly didn’t leave a lot of room, we climbed in, reading and playing with the cat. Since then, tents made out of whatever we can find have encouraged my little girl to “read” on her own. Once I help her build her “tent” she is content to use our camping lantern and sit with her favorite books for a while—for some reason reading is more appealing in a darker, cozier setting. How many of us remember reading a good book under a blanket, long after bedtime?

If April is the month of showers, consider using indoor play as a way to bolster literacy and imagination. Simply having books in the home and reading to children are excellent ways to encourage literacy, but special spaces for books can encourage reading independence. I recently attended the Atlanta Mommy-Con, a natural parenting conference, and had the privilege of hearing Pam Allyn, the executive director and founder of LitWorld, speak regarding encouraging lifelong readers. She mentioned how parents should make “reading feel like a celebration” rather than a mundane task. While there are many ways to do this, children love imaginative play, and creative reading spaces that add to the adventure can help.  

Bronwyn Stewart, a North Augusta mother and Independent Consultant with Usborne Books and More, shared with me how her career with Usborne changed the way she thought about displaying her son Aiden’s books. She learned that “having forward-facing shelves engages your child’s attention” because seeing the covers of pictures books can attract children more than the spines. They created shelving in Aiden’s room where books can be placed with the covers out and there’s a large stuffed animal pillow on the floor. “Several times since we’ve installed them, Aiden goes in there on his own and picks out a book, lies down and ‘reads’ it,” she says. “Also any time we have visitors, Aiden wants to show our guests his book shelves and pulls a book down and asks them to read it to him. Aiden was never really that interested in me reading to him, now he asks me several times a day to read a book to him. So to go from maybe one book a day to reading about six to seven a day, makes me very happy.”

There are ways to build reading spaces in your house no matter what sort of space you have available. From more temporary spaces that work for renters, to a more permanent installation if you have the extra room—you can create a reading nook that works for you.  

Temporary Structures: Building a “pillow fort” or tent with your child is a great way to encourage critical thinking skills, plus it can be a great parent-child activity. Use blankets, couch cushions and pillows thrown over tables to make a space big enough for you and the child to crawl into. Toys such as Crazy Forts, Discovery Kids Construction Forts or a variety of indoor play tents, can help encourage school-aged children to creatively build structures that can be easily taken down and stored. 

Book Storage: Storing books in creative ways can encourage independent reading and add a decorative dimension to a child’s bedroom or playroom. Allyn encourages “book baskets” where children can have ready-to-read books in storage that is small enough for them to pick up and move to whatever comfy spot they’d like to read. My mother, a long-time elementary school teacher, stores books this way in her classroom, putting book series or paperbacks of the same level in a container that a child can pick up and take to his or her desk and easily clean up afterwards. Try mimicking a library cart using a push bin like IKEA’s Raskog cart and storing supplies like book lights and bookmarks on it as well. A variety of bookshelves or “do-it-yourself” shelving can be purchased that allows picture books to be stored “face-out.”

Reading Chair: Consider designating a comfy “reading chair.” Store books nearby, along with blankets and a shaded lamp that will allow for reading without too much background light. You can read in the chair with small children during the day, or make sure that throughout the week different family members get a chance to sit down and relax, making it part of the family routine.“What have you been reading in the reading chair?” can then become a dinner table question to talk to kids about their reading habits.

Book Nooks: Searching for “book nook” or other similar phrases on Pinterest or a search engine will show you pictures of beautiful reading spaces in homes. If you have a corner, under the stair space, or closet that could be used for this purpose, consider making a quiet reading space.  Combine the ideas from above, but add touches such as twinkling lights, a scented wax warmer and pictures, posters or figurines of favorite book characters and places. For example, NASA recently released free printable PDFs of fictional “travel” posters to different planets and moons, perfect for a science fiction loving family and available at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s website under infographics. Hanging tulle or other light fabrics would set a fairy tale mood for a child that loves fantasy.  Make this area “screen free” to ensure a calming space. This may help encourage independent reading, but can also bea relaxation space for children or teens that become overwhelmed or anxious.

This article appears in the April 2016 issue of Augusta Family Magazine.
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