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Reading Strategies and Book Suggestions for Toddlers and Preschoolers Who Can’t Sit Still

When my oldest child was a toddler, I only needed to bring a tote bag of his favorite books to keep him happy and entertained for an hour or more. We nicknamed him The Professor. But then my youngest came along. Cue the Jaws music. His first nickname was The Destroyer… you know the type.

I suddenly had to rethink my strategies for making books a part of his very active, mobile (and developmentally normal!) life.

Toddler and preschool years are crucial in a child’s development as a reader. Even though they can’t yet read independently, they’re learning all the behaviors necessary to do so in the future.

As a point of comparison, clutching a crayon in their chubby, clenched fists and scribbling away is the first step toward being able to write. Soon their fingers get stronger, they start to grasp a pencil and exhibit more control as they draw. It works the same way with reading. 


But how to balance your child’s need to move with your desire to read to them in an enjoyable way? We’ve got some tips and book ideas to help.

Reading Strategies for Toddlers and Preschoolers that Accommodate Their Need to Move

  • Have them grab a toy or stuffed animal to fiddle with while you read to them. Sometimes this amount of motion is all they need to be able to sit and enjoy a book.
  • Read to them during those moments when they do sit still: jump in the backseat while on a road trip, or read while they’re in their high chair having a snack.
  • Attend story time at the library or other organized setting. Most children’s librarians have a proven method of incorporating movement into a 30-minute story time session. It not only introduces the idea that reading is fun and interactive, but as parents/caregivers, we can learn a lot of strategies, games, and songs from these professionals to copy at home. More on the benefit of storytime from Ashley Hopkinson at EdSource here.  
  • Store your child’s books in smaller baskets/containers that your child can easily liftOne of the most common and normal forms of movement in 2 and 3 year olds is a desire to move things from location to location. But often we keep books in large storage containers or stacked on high shelves that don’t allow young children the opportunity to carry them elsewhere (or even reach them independently). If children see books as another manipulative they can move (the way they do food from a play kitchen, for example), then they are more likely to engage with them.
  • Play library! Imaginative play is just as important as time spent reading at this age. In fact, it is imaginative play that gives them the foundation of knowledge and focus to connect more deeply with stories in later years. Ask your child to sort, stack, “check out” books, or even inspect them for damage done by kids who are too rough with books (another important lesson to instill in young children!)
  • Take breaks. When you feel your child has the wiggles, stop occasionally and act out characters, do silly voices, or just a few jumping jacks. Then you can either continue on, or just set the book aside and come back to it later. The moment when you feel you’re forcing it is exactly the moment to stop.
  • Puppets! Read to your child with a puppet or allow them to have the puppet on their hand and repeat some of the simple lines. It doesn’t even need to be a character from the book. Silly voices take the fun up another notch! Or provide them with finger puppets to play with while you read. You can even make puppets using paper lunch bags and crayons/markers.

Book Recommendations for Toddlers and Preschoolers that Incorporate Movement

Sometimes capturing the attention of an active toddler or preschooler is all about selecting the right book. Here are a few suggestions that might work well when your child struggles to sit still to read with you.

  • Press Here and Mix It Up by Herve Tullet. These are quickly becoming classics found in many homes. I originally saw these books as a great way to teach colors and mixing, but more than that, they became favorites in our house because my son felt a part of the storytelling. Don’t Push the Button and There’s A Monster at the End of This Book are great follow ups to these as your child’s attention span gets longer.
  • Peekaboo from DK and Where Is Baby’s Life-the-Flap books by Karen Katz. My kids, from about 6 months old to 3 years old, turned those pages so many times they eventually fell apart. These are ideal for teaching children how to turn the pages of books.
  • That’s Not My ___ books from Usborne. If you’re invited to an Usborne party and you have a baby or toddler, these are great books to pick up. Feeling different textures is another crucial sensory skill at this age. Pick a topic that your child is already interested in (animals, vehicles, mermaids, etc.)
  • Seek n Find and I Spy books. Again, as your toddler’s attention span begins to mature into that of a preschooler, books that ask that they hunt for items, letters, characters, etc. are another great way to get their noses in books, even if it doesn’t feel like a traditional read aloud activity. I loved these for travel because for their relatively small size, we could spend longer periods of time looking at these. If you’re at home, spread them out on the floor so your active child can move around while looking at them.
  • From Head to Toe by Eric Carle. If taking breaks while reading works well for your child, this book is spot-on. Each page requires a new movement!
  • Books with songs, like Pete the Cat’s I Love My White Shoes, are really fun. I love to celebrate the end of the book by jamming and dancing to the song after. Most nursery rhymes can easily be found on YouTube for a sing/dance-along before or after you read the book.
  • Felt books. I teach PreK part-time, and these are the first books my 4 and 5-year-olds take off the shelves during their free time every day. Some are expensive, but these books offer the trifecta of imaginative play, fine motor skills, and literacy.

What matters more than anything (book choice, strategies, fun activities) is that you keep books accessible and that you as a parent feel relaxed as you read to your child. Some days and certain books will go down a treat. Others will end in frustration. If today was a miss, try again tomorrow!

Disclosure: This post contains Amazon Affiliate links.


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