Herding Cats: How to Read to Toddlers and Preschoolers Who Won’t Always Sit Still

The other day, a friend asked me for help with a problem she’d been having in getting her toddler to sit still whenever she read to him.

She knows my daughter loves books as much as my husband and I do, and since I taught first and second graders to read during my years as an elementary school teacher, she figured I’d have a few helpful tips to pass along.

How to Read to Young Children

My friend was worried because although everyone always says it’s important to read to toddlers, hers never wanted to sit still. Oh, he would come over to look at the pictures every so often, but didn’t seem to be listening all the time. This concerned mom wondered what she should do.

If this situation sounds all too familiar to you, take heart — and don’t panic, because your predicament is extremely common among the toddling set!

First of all, keep in mind that little guys are constantly on the move and absorbing everything they can from their environment at the same time. Don’t be afraid to keep on reading while they’re running around or to play because believe it or not, they are still listening!

However, if your child ever expresses a desire to stop reading, honor that. You want to make sure the reading experience remains a positive one for your child and doesn’t turn them off books completely. You can always offer another reading opportunity in an hour or two if they ask you to stop right now.

You can read or listen to this post.

To have the best chance of promoting your child’s emerging literacy skills when you do break out the books, consider these ideas:

How to choose books for preschoolers and toddlers

  • How to Read to Little Ones and Enjoy itChoose books about whatever topic your preschooler is into at the moment. Animals are always popular, as are books showing children engaged in everyday activities.
  • Choose books with actions that accompany the story (think Wheels on the Bus or If You’re Happy and You Know It).
  • Choose shorter books, or read just a few pages of a story at a time.
  • Allow your child to choose the book (even if it’s the same one over and over that you’re sick of because you’ve read it 50 times already!) from a selection of three or four.
  • Find books with flaps to lift or textures to feel.
  • Read plenty of nonfiction selections. Your little sponge loves to soak up all sorts of new information on just about any subject!
  • Since your toddler is making huge vocabulary gains each day, choose books containing objects they can point to and name (they love to be involved!)
  • Create and read homemade books or scrapbooks or even photo albums (be sure to name family and friends in the pictures!)
  • Don’t hesitate to choose other print items like magazines, newspapers or even junk mail ‐ it’s all still reading!

How to engage your preschooler or toddler while reading

Best tips for reading with young children

  • Read following vigorous activity or at quieter times of the day (like after playing outside or before a nap) to promote a calm demeanor
  • Tell stories (this also develops literacy skills) or listen to audiobooks while coloring or doing crafts.
  • Take a trip to your local library. You’d be amazed at some of the programs that are being offered, and even if your child is going to Lego Club instead of story time, you can bet that those positive‐library feelings will pay off later on!

No matter what, it’s important to creative a positive reading environment in your home. Don’t force reading upon your child, just offer opportunities often.

Helping little kids love reading

Creating a positive reading environment means having books available for your child to just play with (board books are exceptionally durable). You should also do plenty of reading yourself (your little shadow not only loves to follow you around but to imitate what you do!). Make sure you choose physical books to read, too -‐ not just electronic versions.

Above all, don’t give up or get discouraged.  There will come a day when your little bundle of energy will trot up, book in hand, and beg to sit in your lap while you read!

Can you think of any other great preschooler or toddler reading tips? I’d love to hear!

Spread the love



  • Nina Lewis says:

    I so needed to have read this yesterday!!!! Last night, I babysat my niece’s kids. One little son would not sit still at all! After reading this post, I realized I was reading books that were more appropriate for his two older siblings that were sitting quietly by me and listening very intently.

    He did come and sit by me and snuggle a couple of times, so maybe he did enjoy listening to me read to them — even though most of the time he was running faster than a car speeding down a NASCAR race track!

  • GREAT tips! Pinning these for future reference… thanks so much!

  • Cathy says:

    Great suggestions for my 2 1/2 year old granddaugther. Sharing!

  • Mother of 3 says:

    Oh I can so relate to this… but I often read to my boys at snack time or when they were in the tub; that way I had a more captive audience!

    • That’s a fabulous idea, Joanne, and I’m so happy you shared it here! Even though Gv can sit for hours and listen to books, I’ve definitely read stacks and stacks of titles to her in the tub to keep myself sane during marathon bath sessions! It was so fun to see you over here today – thanks so much for coming to visit!

      • againpastor manning made a superb analogy to poor blacks losing harlem to gentrification andobama gentrifying america to elite whites exclusivelyany prof would give him an A+for his cogent comparisons!i am not a tomi am a realistand that video is dead on!

  • Brenda says:

    What a great list of tips, Lisa. 🙂 (And, I love the title! 🙂 ) I had one who never really did sit well for reading, and two who would sit in my lap and read all day long. 🙂 I still have those books, too. 🙂 Oh, the memories. How they go from toddler to adult overnight is a mystery to me. 🙂 Congrats on your new blogging gig. 🙂 And, thanks for sharing at #ChasingCommunity today! ((hug))

    • How fun that you had experience with both sides of the situation, Brenda! Gv can definitely sit for hours in my lap. I appreciate all your encouragement and congratulations – and it was so fun to see you over here, too!

  • I remember these days so well, they were some of the best times ever. Using character voices was a favorite with my kids. Believe me, sometimes those voices would get tiresome for me, but never for them! Great tips and keep on reading and snuggling!

    • You know what I do ALL the time, Nikki? I start off in a certain voice, but then totally forget/drift off by the end. Or I’ll go all-out with the voices one time I read a book, but then I don’t do it EVERY time – which of course, is not acceptable! It was so fun to see you here – thanks so much for coming to visit!

  • Lisa says:

    I loved these tips, thank you! I definitely need them for one of my kiddos! Also, I’m curious to know how you handle kids constantly interrupting. My preschooler constantly has things to tell me about every 2nd sentence! I don’t want to cut off all discussion, but it’s really hard to read when someone keeps talking!

    • Gv usually waits pretty well until the end of a story to interject things, but when I was still in the classroom, boy did I encounter this issue! I found that if I spent a loooooong time talking about the book before and after, then paused at “good points” in the story to ask and discuss, then I was able to control when the disruptions happened, at least a bit. But if that doesn’t work, then I’d say to just follow your preschooler’s lead — even though it’s more difficult for you, just think of all the learning and interacting that’s going on! Sometimes it’s what comes from the discussions (or even what their brains start churning through while we read) that is the most beneficial during reading time! I’d love to hear an update on things!

  • >