I love children’s picture books. This love was inspired by my parents who spent hours reading with me as a kid. My memories of story time begin so early that they are mostly sensory.
When I think about reading together, I remember sitting close to my mom or dad, maybe even snuggled in their lap. I hear the sound of their voice, reading the words. I remember how my breathing would slow down to match the pacing of the story. My fingers recall how they would let me decide when to turn the pages, allowing me lots of processing time before moving on to the next part of the narrative. My eyes remember how they taught me to study the illustrations, and be curious about what I was looking at. My ears remember how my parents would ask me questions about what we were reading. My mind recalls how they would invite me to share my ideas about what might happen next.
Most of all, I remember the whole body feeling of safety, sitting close to an adult who cared deeply for me, being held by their arms, their words, their presence, and their attention while immersed in the imaginary world of the story.
To add even more joy to story time, every few weeks my mom would bring me to the public library. This was the highlight of my young existence. A whole huge building filled with stories we hadn’t read yet! We always picked as many books as the limit allowed, and we couldn’t wait to get home and read them. Some books became favourites that we borrowed over and over again.
The excitement and possibility of a new story has always stayed with me.
The public library is still one of my personal happy places, and I visit the children’s book section almost every weekend.
Now, as an art therapist working with children, I have discovered that story books are an incredible tool to build connection with my little clients. If you follow @resourcefulmearttherapy on Instagram, you may have noticed that every Sunday I share a children’s book recommendation using the hashtag #storybooksunday. I usually provide a brief summary of the story, what I liked about it, and what I believe to be the story’s main message. Where appropriate, I share how I might use the story in art therapy sessions with little clients.
But what’s the connection between children’s books and art therapy?
For me, reading children’s books with clients is a very valuable tool in my art therapist tool kit – I pull it out often as I look for ways to connect with my clients. I hope that reading together can become an imaginative and accessible tool in your parenting tool kit too, to help you connect with your kiddos in ways that are really meaningful.
First, I’ll share some insights about the benefits of story time from a developmental perspective. Then I’ll share 3 ways that I use children’s books in session to build connection. My hope is that these ideas will help you to reflect on story time with the kids you care about, and inspire you to approach reading together with intentionality and excitement.
Story Time from a Developmental Perspective
Story time is a uniquely special time with children. But what makes story time different? Here are a few ideas from a developmental perspective.
Reading together naturally encourages co-regulation (that’s when an adult helps a child’s nervous system to calm down by first calming themselves, and then sharing their calm with the child).
When we read together, the adult reader takes charge by sitting down, inviting the child to come close, holding the book, and setting the pace by reading the words. The adult is a physical and metaphorical anchor, showing the child where to sit, what to focus on, and how fast to go.
Usually reading is a fairly slow-paced activity. Have you noticed that reading a story together often has a calming effect on your kiddo? This is the power of co-regulation in action! You are sharing your calm with them on a completely subconscious level. It’s real, every day magic.
In my opinion, the coolest thing about co-regulation is that it’s the first step in building self-regulation. Every time a child experiences this with you, their bodies are learning how to do it too. If children have positive associations of feeling calm while reading, they may be able to use reading as a tool to help themselves calm down independently as they get older.
Reading together is a time-limited activity that matches a child’s attention span.
Most children’s books are short, so reading them only takes a few minutes. You and your child both know this. It’s reasonable to expect that you can both focus on the book for a few minutes and set aside all distractions. If the story is engaging, you may also notice that your own thoughts and worries are temporarily suspended. Part of what makes story time special is that you know it’s going to end.
Young children believe in magical thinking, and picture books allow us to enter that world with them.
For a child, anything can be alive and have emotions. Sometimes it can be hard for adults to relate to this. But when we read a children’s book, we suspend our disbelief. Children’s books are not meant to reflect reality. They exist in the realm of imagination and play where anything can happen. Talking animals and objects with faces are perfectly acceptable in a children’s book. This is an opportunity for adults to enter a child’s world and explore deep and meaningful subjects in a way that makes sense for kids.
Children develop receptive language skills before they develop expressive language skills.
In other words, kids understand what is being said to them, even before they can give a verbal answer back. This is an opportunity! Children are absorbing the messages shared through the story. A child’s internal self talk (what they think and say to themselves when facing a challenge) is made up of the messages they have heard. As discerning adults we can choose the kinds of messages that we want to share with our kids. Books are an incredible opportunity to share simple, straightforward messages that may even become part of your child’s inner self talk.
I am living proof of this! When I was three years old, my favourite book was “The Little Engine That Could.” I begged my mom to read it over and over again, to the point where she felt exasperated. But she read it every time I asked. My favourite part was when the little engine was chugging up the steep hill and chanting “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can, I think I can!” I took this message to heart and it became part of my inner dialogue. As a child, when I was trying to do something difficult I would say “I think I can, I think I can!” This is still a mantra I use today. It’s a message I learned through a story book in early childhood, and it has had tremendous influence on who I’ve become and what I believe about myself.
So, reading together is POWERFUL! There’s so much happening in this simple interaction. How can we use this time to intentionally build connection with our kids?
Here are 3 ways that I use children’s books to connect with my clients during art therapy sessions. You can use children’s books like this at home too!
1. I use children’s books to NORMALIZE and VALIDATE a child’s experience.
Children don’t have the life experience to know that other people face similar challenges. Books are an excellent way to show them that there are kids or characters who look like them, feel like them, and act like them. Books can also offer hope for a child facing a challenge, because usually by the end of the story there is some kind of resolution.
For example, “Scaredy Squirrel” is a book about a squirrel who experiences anxiety when facing the unknown. By the end of the story, the squirrel has worked through an unexpected plot twist and discovers that his worst fears did not come true, and nothing terrible happened in the unknown. This book playfully introduces the concept of anxiety, explores some possible responses to anxiety, and offers reassurance. For children who may feel scared or anxious about trying new things, this story can be both affirming and reassuring.
Another book that normalizes and validates a child’s experience is “Mila Has Two Beds.” This is a story about a little girl who spends half of her time at her mom’s house, and half of her time at her dad’s. She notices the differences between each household, but recognizes that both of her parents love her very much.
Kids love hearing stories that reflect something of their own experience. They often will point out the similarities on their own, saying “I felt scared too on my first day of school!” or “Mila’s family is just like my family!” These stories are a way for children to feel seen. They provide an invitation for children to share what they are going through, while reassuring them that they are not alone in their experience.
For some kids, talking about their personal experience may feel too vulnerable or challenging. But if we read a book about a character who is experiencing something similar, they might feel comfortable talking about the story as a safe, indirect way to communicate their own thoughts and feelings. Maybe I know that a child’s family structure is similar to Mila’s, but the child does not feel comfortable talking about their own family. The child might be open to discussing how Mila feels when it’s time to go visit dad, and we can explore feelings that the child might be experiencing, while maintaining a level of objectivity and emotional distance because we are just talking about the story.
If you know or suspect that your child is going through something difficult, sharing a book about the experience can be an excellent starting point. Just reading the story can offer some reassurance and relief for your kiddo. And it can often provide a safe starting point for talking about the challenge.
2. I use children’s books to EXTERNALIZE abstract concepts.
Because children’s books exist in the realm of imagination and magical thinking, they are the perfect space to illustrate abstract concepts. If something is presented in a story book, we expect to see an illustration of it. If the story is about an emotion, we want to see that emotion represented. So children’s books provide examples of how we can visualize and illustrate abstract concepts.
This is something we often do in art therapy. Art therapists invite their clients to imagine emotions and challenges as something outside of themselves that has shape, colour, texture, and dimension. Once the emotion or the challenge has been represented, then we can learn more about it and work with it. It’s a powerful way to “separate the person from the problem,” a concept from narrative therapy that is at the core of my strengths-based approach for working with little clients.
Children’s books teach us how to externalize and represent abstract concepts. For example, “When Sadness is At Your Door” portrays the emotion of sadness as a character in the story who comes to pay the child a visit. After reading this story, I usually invite my clients to draw a picture of themselves and their sadness. The story shows an example of what sadness might look like, but from there my clients can use their imagination and creativity to create their own character for sadness.
“Ruby Finds a Worry” also externalizes an abstract concept. In this story, Ruby’s worry is portrayed as a scribbly grumpy blob that gets bigger and bigger, reflecting Ruby’s experience of anxiety. Through the story, Ruby learns what to do with her worry, and by the end her worry has shrunk so small that it disappears. After reading this story, many clients will share that they also have a worry just like Ruby. Then I invite them to draw a picture and show me just how big their worry is. From here, we can explore ideas for shrinking the worry just like Ruby did.
These picture books provide my client and I with a concrete starting point for expressing abstract concepts and connecting with the child’s experience.
3. I use children’s books to LEGITIMIZE an important message.
There’s something official about a concept presented in a professionally bound and published book. It holds some power and influence when the message is coming from the book, and it’s not just something that I said. The book has its own authority, and I can use this as a tool when I want to share an important concept.
For example, if my client and I are working on safe and healthy ways to express anger, I might read “The Big Angry Roar” with them. This book normalizes that everyone feels angry sometimes, and validates many common ways that kids might express this emotion (yelling, hitting, stomping). Then the book offers a different strategy to try instead – taking a deep breath, slowly counting to 10, making some funny faces, and repeating all over again. I have found that my little clients are happy to try this strategy as we read the book, because it’s in the context of the story. Then afterwards I can suggest it as a strategy to try at home too. Because the strategy came from a story, often kiddos are more open to trying it. I have found that this can be more effective and have more lasting power than if I was to just remind them to take a deep breath and count to 10.
Another example is “The Invisible String.” This book shares the idea that we are always connected to those we love, and that nothing (not even separation or death) can break that bond. When I have read this book with my clients, I often notice that they will bring up the concept of the invisible string on their own afterwards. This idea is very powerful, and when it’s presented in such an official way, it seems to have a significant impact. Kids will refer to and remember that story, and apply the concept to their own circumstances even long after we are finished reading the story.
This observation relates to the idea that a story’s message can become internalized for children. If we are intentional about the books we share with kids, we can increase the chances that positive messages and concepts become part of their inner self talk.
To summarize, reading together is a powerful opportunity to co-regulate with your kiddo and to enter their imaginary world. With a little bit of intentionality, you can use story time as an opportunity to connect with your child. Children’s books can be tools to help you normalize and validate your child’s experience, learn how to externalize abstract concepts, and bring legitimacy to important messages. If you have a clear goal in mind, you can choose a book that fits with your intention.
When I consider bringing a children’s book into an art therapy session, my goal is ALWAYS to support my client in making personal connections, and to offer an invitation for discussion. While I enjoy the reading part, what I really hope for is an entry way into conversation.
As I encounter new children’s books, I ask myself: how could this book help me to connect with my clients? I look for books that normalize challenging childhood experiences, externalize abstract concepts, and share important messages aligned with my values and hopes for my clients.
If you’re looking for books like this, be sure to follow @resourcefulmearttherapy on Instagram for weekly children’s book recommendations. And if you have a topic request or a suggestion for #storybooksunday, I would LOVE to hear from you! Send me a direct message on Instagram, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Happy reading, friends!
Written by Rubi Garyfalakis, DTATI, RP, RCAT