Reading by the Pool
May 31, 2018
I was reading a book at my neighborhood pool the other day when I noticed two little boys playing in the shallow end, laughing gleefully as they invented new water games on the fly, refining the rules with every round.
After about an hour or so, they emerged from the pool, shaking chlorine-scented water from their ears as they joined their mom in a deck chair. She retrieved a book from her beach bag and began reading aloud to them. They nestled languidly against her as their limbs spilled over the sides of the chair. I couldn’t make out the words she read to them, but I detected her soothing voice as she turned page after page for the next forty minutes or so.
The boys were entranced. And so was I.
I loved seeing kids so utterly captivated by the written word, so lulled by their mom’s sonorous voice. No wonder they’d played together so easily, so effortlessly, in the pool a few minutes earlier. They were clearly accustomed to keeping themselves happily and harmoniously amused for relatively long stretches of time.
That’s the power of books. They ignite the imagination. They create long attention spans. They encourage empathy, inviting readers into unknown worlds and unveiling common bonds. They’re . . . magic.
I’ve bemoaned before that I think competitive reading clubs in schools turn books into chores to be endured rather than pleasures to be savored. I know, I know. . . Educators have a tough job luring kids away from electronics, and it certainly makes intuitive sense that incentives would help. But I don’t think they do. Encouraging kids to scan pages quickly enough to earn a pizza makes reading the means to an end rather than joy and a pleasure in its own right.
But would kids do it if a pizza wasn’t dangling on the end of a metaphorical stick?
I think they would . . . if they regularly observed their parents reading for pleasure . . . if they heard books read aloud to them . . . if they had enough unstructured and electronics-free time to discover the magic for themselves . . . if they were encouraged to choose books that reflected their tastes and personalities.
Yes, some assigned reading will always be a vital part of the school curriculum. Yes, exposure to the classics is vital whether kids appreciate them at the time or not. But even more vital is setting in motion a lifelong habit of immersing oneself in a good book — and that comes by modeling the behavior, not by bribing kids with pizzas.
I wish every kid could flop against their mom on a sun-dappled summer afternoon and hear the words of Maurice Sendak or Roald Dahl come to life. I wish every kid could develop a lifelong love of reading with no expectations, incentives or ulterior motives. I wish every kid could learn that reading for pleasure is about living in the moment.
And what magical moments lie ahead of them . . . if they learn to love reading.