There is no getting around it. The iPad has transformed the reading habits of some of the littlest readers. The lines between reading and ‘media’ are even blurred. I knew this to be a fact when my child began to choose iPad books over television & video games, even. But when it comes to reading bedtime stories, can the iPad really offer a realistic substitute to the print picture book? Or is it still too much of a ‘screen’ for bedtime use?
A recent discussion on our Facebook Fan Page got me thinking about this topic. We were discussing a recent review for Around the World with Lilup which is an ideal bedtime book with soft music and a lyrical, calming story from Viva Book. Dozens of parents weighed in about what they liked most about pajama storytime on their iPads. Here is a summary of what they said:
Parents like to read iPad books at bedtime because:
* You can listen to a story together with a child, rather than reading ‘to’ them. This was one of the top things mentioned by parents when asked what they like about the iPad for bedtime stories. It’s a chance to be together and bond while relaxing with a story. This really stands out as a meaningful way this device can bring parents and kids together for an old routine in a new, refreshed way. Just because we’re grown ups doesn’t mean there isn’t still something magical about being ‘read to’.
* The iPad is nicely back-lit for the low-light setting common for night-time reading. Parents commented that they like that they can adjust the brightness of the iPad to be just right for bedtime. This is particularly nice as a way to set the ‘mood’ for winding down the day’s activities and also brings focus to the book for distractible little ones. Being able to turn the lights down is cozy, too, giving kids a chance to ‘snuggle’ up to read ‘in the dark’.
* Many iPad book apps have soft background music with the story. Parents noted that having music can also set the mood for sleep and helps settle children. This is especially important to parents of kids with special needs or sensory issues, since it can really help calm them down.
* You can access lots of books all in one place, having easy access to a ‘favorite’ book. Trying to find a child’s favorite bedtime story when the print version is hidden somewhere in the house (or left in the car or elsewhere) can cause frustration at night, for both parents and kids. Parents appreciate the ease of use and variety of books available as book apps and often put them in special folders for bedtime reading.
* A book can ‘come alive’ on the iPad in a way a paper book can’t. Even at night-time, the best part of an iPad book can be the way it brings a story to life with movement, interactivity and sound. Especially with books that have good bedtime themes or are only lightly enhanced, this can make bedtime a treat for children instead of something to be avoided.
* You can discuss the book with a child along the way, even when being ‘read to’ with narration. Because the user is still in charge of the page turning (unless on auto-play), storytime can still be a chance to have conversations with children about the book, answer questions and explore together. Parents have told me that this is an important reason why they feel that a book app is still definitely a ‘book’.
* You can have storytime with several children of different ages and keep them all happy. iPad book apps can engage younger and older children more easily with the same book, simply because they ‘come alive’ and offer more variety to children with different developmental needs. A story that engages an older child might have elements that engage a younger child or vice-versa. Several parents have mentioned that iPad books allow them to have ‘storytime’ as a family instead of each child insisting on separate books read apart from their siblings.
* You can have a child start bedtime books on their own while waiting for a parent to finish another night-time chore. This is especially helpful for the tight time schedules all parents are on … that last minute errand doesn’t have to delay preparations for bedtime if a child can start the story by themselves. It can also give parents a way to engage an older child when a younger child needs more assistance with bedtime preparations.
* You have the flexibility to read the story to a child or have it narrated. Parents mentioned liking that they could read the story to their child, even adding creative flourishes. But they also like having the optional narration, especially for times when parents are too tired to read aloud. My child used to get fewer books read to him on nights when I was especially worn out … now he actually gets to read more on nights I’m tired (mostly because I’m too weary to say no to ‘just one more book’).
* You can pre-record narration for a book by a loved one. This is a great feature of many iPad book apps, allowing a parent, grandparent or other loved one to narrate a favorite story for a child despite being far away. For many families, especially those with loved ones in the military, this is an important feature that can help keep children connected to distant relatives.
* You can keep a child’s attention more consistently, especially for children with special needs and for longer stories. The iPad allowed parents & children to finish a story when they would usually only get part-way through, either because of the child’s attention span or the length/content of the book. I found my preschooler would go stir crazy if I tried to read “The Velveteen Rabbit” to him (one of my childhood favorites), but as an iPad app he was able to make it all the way to the end.
So, is the iPad the perfect solution to for all your bedtime reading needs?
Probably not. And it’s important to be cautious about adopting something so new, literally overnight. Many sources suggest limiting ‘screen time’ before bed for children (and adults), especially overstimulating or violent content. The quality of our children’s sleep has been a concern of parents for many years and we wouldn’t want to do something that would make it more difficult for children to settle down at night or get quality rest.
It’s not surprising to find that many people, children included, are effected by viewing media late at night. It’s also possible that exposure to bright light, noise and the stimulation present in some book apps might have a negative effect on children trying to get to sleep soon afterward.
Keeping these concerns in mind, there are some things to consider to have a successful digital bedtime routine:
1. Consider the content of the story. Whether digital or print, a bedtime story needs to be calming, not scary or filled with ‘cliff-hangers’. Every child is different and parents are the experts on their own child’s triggers for bad dreams or getting ‘riled’ up.
2. Consider the behavior and needs of the child. Some kids, especially older ones, can handle a bit more interactive or animated books at nighttime. Other kids need bedtime stories on the iPad to be very simple, without enhancements, in order to stay focused on the bedtime ritual. Let your own children be your guide.
3. Consider the audience. Will it be just one child with an adult? Will the child start the book by themselves while a younger sibling is getting a bath? Will there be many fingers vying for the interactive elements? Less interactive books are ideal for most bedtime reads, but an animated book can be just the right treat for an older child waiting on their slower younger sibling for storytime, for instance. Auto-play can also be a great choice for sharing a book with several children at once since it usually discourages ‘tapping’.
4. Consider your time frame and set up the environment. Nothing matters more than setting up a consistent ritual for bedtime and a big part of that can be predicting how many books you will read or for how long. Also consider the effect on your child of bright lights and noise close to bedtime. You can dim the room lights and turn down the settings on the iPad for sound and brightness to set just the right mood.
5. Don’t think it’s an all or nothing switch to digital books at bedtime or that ‘features’ can’t be turned off of in an ‘enhanced’ book. Try reading iPad books every other night or a couple of each on the same night. Or even just switch to digital books for special occasions, holidays or when traveling. Also try muting books more often to read them aloud or have a child read to you. There are valuable things you give a child by reading aloud to them; many aspects of print books don’t have to be lost when switching to digital picture books. The beauty of the iPad book app is that it gives you so many options. You can read a book in different ways depending on the setting, but you do have to make conscious decisions to ‘pass’ on certain features of an app at bedtime.
6. Be careful not to rely too much on the device to ‘run’ bedtime. You can’t get the desired effects of pajama storytime with an adult if the adult is not present. Even if the parent arrives half-way into a story, after finishing a last-minute errand, that is better than a child reading by themselves entirely. It is the presence of a care-taker, sharing a story with a child, that matters most, not the medium.
Ultimately the iPad is a tool – it’s all in how you use it that really matters.