Make Reading A Game With These Simple Tools

Soup up your story time: turn your books into games when you do reading the Child’s Play way!

One of the perks of growing up with actor-parents is that story time was…awesome.  

My mom and dad picked great books, threw themselves into the dialogue, lifted up the most dramatic moments and relished the act of reading.  It was like a professional workout for them and it was incredibly bonding for us.

With Child’s Play NY we take the magic of “story time” and build whole curriculums from it.  Kids can act out a Roald Dahl book in front of 100 people or make up their own fairy tale in an intimate classroom.  The energy of the company derives from turning literature into drama.

As a parent myself now, I’ve carried this forward both with my son and in classrooms.  I realize even more the value of quality reading time and the ways that we can spin that into playtime.   

Here are some tips – passed down from my parents and forged in the classrooms of Child’s Play NY – on how to make reading a meaningful activity with your child.  

BEFORE YOU START READING

Pick books with vivid characters (and bad guys too).

Select books that have really compelling heroes, villains or funny characters.  If your child is excited by the people or animals in the story, they will be inspired to act them out.  

Foster courage in your kid.  Don’t shy away from tricky subject matter.  Fairy tales, for example, can seem un-PC and (in their original form) are often very dark.  That said, the kinds of characters and conflicts in these stories are often the most exciting for children to act out.  

The famous child psychologist, Bruno Bettelheim, wrote about this very thing in his book: The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. He says, “The child intuitively comprehends that although these stories are unreal they are not untrue.”  When children get a chance to portray parts of a story that scare or intrigue, they are actually learning more about the world around them.  Talk about the subject matter at hand,  let them give voice to their fears, but expose them to it.  

For fairy-tale purists, you can go to Hans Christian Anderson or the Brother’s Grimm, but those tales can often be daunting and aren’t always age-appropriate.  You can find  great actable stories in more contemporary tales like Fables by Arnold Lobel, Circus Ship by Chris Van Deusen, Superworm by Julia Donaldson and The Monster Princess by D.J. MacHale.  Each features compelling casts of characters, clear conflicts, a wonderful victorious moment and a villain who is fun to portray.   Those ingredients make stories great to read and bring to life.

Choosing the books (with your kids) is part of the fun

Whether you’re bringing books back from the library, the bookstore or shopping on-line, involve your kids in the selection process.  

Have your kids weigh in on what they are most interested in will be key.  When the books arrive from the library (or your order comes in the mail), it will be even more gratifying for them.

For my New York readers who use the Brooklyn Public Library, I highly recommend getting customized recommendations from Beanstack. Their sophisticated algorithms can help you choose books based on more “niche” interests that transcend gender stereotypes and connect with kids based on their hobbies and heroes with more modern takes on families. 

Make it cozy.  Kids can help with this.  

Make reading a ritual that feels very personal to your family.  Pre-empt any bouncing up and down by anticipating what they might need before they settle in.  (My son likes to have his “pet” rubber lizard nearby and a cup of water.)

Involve your child actively in getting everything they need to hunker-in and read with you. We make a “reading nook” with pillows and blankets, and select a “batch” of books to read at a time. The act of setting this up is a joint-effort and sets us up for a successful reading time!  For more info about this read tips on getting cozy.  

WHEN YOU ARE READING

So, you’ve got dramatic books that your kid is excited about and you’re cozy as can be.  The task is now to read in a really engaging way.

Jocelyn Greene reads Circus Ship in Child's Play NY Class

Use Dialogue

I love books with dialogue because they become like mini plays.  Experiment with different voices that the characters have and ask your child how they think the character sounds. If your child is reading, they can follow along with you a character that they are “playing”.   If they aren’t reading yet the call-and-response method works really well.

Pop out the drama

The best parts of your book will require your kids to be courageous.  When teaching, I love to stop the story right at a crucial moment and ask, “Are you guys brave enough for what’s about to happen?”  I usually get a resounding chorus of “YES!”.  This little heads-up helps to mentally prepare kids for a climactic moment, scary picture or dramatic event.  Check in with your child about how they are doing right after.  Don’t shy away from the scary parts, lean into them, and learn about your child through them.  These climaxes are also usually the most actable parts of the story.   

Create the world of the book through sound.  

Breezes, ocean sounds, thunder, you name it, kids are great at making noises.  It can be fun for them to have kids create the background ambiance of the story. This makes the book come alive and brings them actively into the storytelling process.  

AFTER YOU READ

Pam Allyn, director of LitWorld, a global literacy initiative for children says, “The most powerful tool that we have to strengthen literacy is often the most underused and overlooked, and that is a child’s own stories.” Here are some ways to bring your books.  

Turn a Story into Another Story

Once you’ve isolated the dramatic moment that excites your child the most, then a playful improvisation can happen.  

Books, reading, playtime, games

Ask your child, “Should we act this out?” You will likely get a resounding – “Yes!” Put the reigns in their hands and ask:  “Who do you want to ‘play’?”  From there, let the new story unfold.  This invitation to play is likely enough, and your child can help direct the drama that feels the most relevant to them.  Use the words from the page to help you along.  Ask questions to spur the drama forward.

Use a Prop

You don’t need to be literal or fancy with the stuff you use to help you tell your story.  Grab a simple prop to make the story come to life a little more.  Read more about how objects you already have around the house can be transformed through play.   Nathaniel and I “traveled” to different lands in Mary Pope Osborne’s Magic Tree House books by spinning around on a blanket, imagining it was a treehouse.

Create a Prequel or a Sequel

Actors have to invent a backstory for their characters.  This gives dimension and nuance to our work.  Have your child imagine the character’s backstory or future story in the books they read.  

Where did the Lorax come from?  What happens if Goldilocks goes back and says sorry to the bears?  What do Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail talk about over berries? This kind of dialogue boosts understanding but also empathy.  To learn more questions to ask as kids are reading, check out, “How Building a Character Builds Character”.    

Use Music to Underscore the Adventure

I love to use soundtracks or classical music to elevate the story as we act it out.  If you are reading about dinosaurs, use the music from Jurassic Park.  Composers like Alexandre Desplat and Ennio Morricone have scores that heighten the excitement of what you are acting out.  Let kids can get swept up in a feeling of what a story is about and and transcend the literal.  

Chime in about the ways that you make story time matter!

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kids laughing while playing a storytelling game to practice listening

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