How I Got My Toddler Back on Books After She Got a Taste of Screen Time

Eight clever and creative ideas for making reading time as fascinating as "Frozen."

Hero Images / Getty Images
Hero Images / Getty Images

By Angela Zimmerman, Common Sense Media 

When I opened the gates to screen time for my 2-year-old daughter, I was planning to limit it to airplanes and sick days. But with TV and tablets came a whole new colorful world that hooked my tot instantly, and her new word — “cartoons!” — became a constant refrain. Almost overnight, her obsession with books and our sweet ritual of reading became a distant memory to her little toddler brain. Screens offered something much more exciting.

I felt OK introducing screen time, especially since most of the time I snuggle up on the couch and watch with her (which is why I now know every single word of Moana), to make the TV time as interactive and educational as I can. And the apps we’ve let her play with are all highly rated for learning. But when it came time to reading books together, her previously enthusiastic interest was now drawn to a shape-shifting demigod voiced by the Rock.

I was worried. For me, books are more than fun and educational. They’re a family tradition. My own lifelong passion for reading was sparked by my mother’s nightly read-aloud sessions with me and my sister. We never skipped a night, and it was truly a highlight of my childhood. I may not follow every custom my mom handed down (like her tendency to embroider our names on anything she could stick a needle into), but I know that a love of books is worth preserving. I want my kid to treasure that magical reading time as much as I did growing up, despite the irresistible pull of singing animals, animated princesses, and sweeping soundtracks (seriously, it’s hard to compete with Lin-Manual Miranda).

So I had to dig deep to come up with extra-special reading experiences to compete with all that sparkly screen entertainment. My hope is that these tips and tricks will cultivate positive and passionate literacy habits she’ll have the rest of her life.

Make it a daily ritual. Every night, without fail, before my daughter heads to bed, we read at least two books together, usually more. On the nights she’s wound up and super resistant to sleep, this routine puts her in a mellow mood and helps her relax. By the time I turn the first page, she’s already heavy-lidded and sucking her thumb.

Let them pick. Your kid is bound to have favorite books, and you will inevitably groan inwardly (and probably outwardly) when she asks you to read The Very Hungry Caterpillar for the 200th time. But it’s those cherished favorites that will always comfort and entertain. (If we go for a third book, Mommy gets to pick. Otherwise we’d never rotate our library.)

Find a quiet, special space. We used to read in the rocker next to her crib, but on those nights she didn’t want to go to bed, she put up a fight just to enter her room. Then we used to read on the couch, but there are inevitably distractions — the basketball game is on, the dog is barking at the neighbors, there’s music on the stereo. So I created our own special reading space on the bed in the guest room. It’s stocked with pillows and blankets, and I light some candles and lay out the book selections on the bed with us. It’s our insta-special reading spot! (It sure doesn’t take much with a toddler.) You can do this anywhere you have enough room for two.

Don’t freak out and completely eliminate screen time. Once you’ve introduced TV and tablets to your toddler — and discovered his or her voracious appetite for it — you don’t need to panic and pack it all in. Well-chosen, high-quality media has proven benefits and is fine when balanced with other activities. Try to be strategic with when, how often, and how much you let them imbibe.

Keep the selection fresh. Hit the library regularly, and check out stuff by their favorite authors or genres. Libraries are key, since you never know what they’re going to like, and you don’t want to shell out bucks for books they won’t touch. Need recommendations? Check out some of Common Sense Media’s fave books for toddlers.

Find print books with sensory experiences. You can load up your Kindle or tablet with digital books when traveling, but let them enjoy the tactile experience of turning pages and touching different textures. My kid loves books with an interactive element, such as flaps and dials or scratch-and-sniff spots. Her favorites include Mama’s Pajamas, which has an array of different fabrics, and Dance, which uses cardboard levers to make different animals dance.

Keep ’em all over. We keep a few books in the car and a stack by the potty, and she gets to take one to bed every night. It may be overkill, but it gives her an opportunity to connect with books at every step. Studies have even shown that having lots of books at home can give kids a big boost in school.

Resist the begging with clever excuses. When my kid gets really stuck on something and wants to do nothing but watch Frozen, I tell her Elsa and Anna are sleeping. She accepts that without question. Sure, it’s a white lie, but it’s for her own good (and the sanity of me and my husband). A lifelong love of reading is a gift you can give to your kids that they will carry forever. One day she’ll thank me!

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