Physical Books are What Kids Need and Prefer

The research between real paper physical books and e-readers for kids reveals a clear winner.


A recent wildly successful Kickstarter campaign proposed an application on your phone that provided children’s’ books complete with picture projections and sound effects (basically an old school television program). It raised nearly twenty times its initial goal of twenty-thousand dollars. This is a perfect demonstration of how desperate parents are to interest their children in reading.

Parents will do anything to make reading more appealing to their young children. Often forgetting to be patient and allow their children to discover their love of reading as their budding attentional abilities permit them. Research demonstrates that parents efforts to make reading more appealing usually backfire. When we try to jazz something up or offer rewards for it, it diminishes that activity’s intrinsic value.

Children are smart and they end up looking at you thinking, “If reading were so great on its own, why are doing this whole song and dance and offering me a new toy if I do it? Reading must not be that great. I’m only going to do it if you keep giving me stuff.” If a book comes with fancy projections and sound effects, it is distracting, discourages the use of individual creativity and imagination, and decreases the likelihood children will want to do the (initially challenging) work of listening to stories.

The Children Agree!

Recent research demonstrated that children typically do not use e-readers to read. Even when the children owned e-readers and were classified as “daily readers” by the researchers, they did not choose to do their reading on the device. They chose physical books. The research assessed ownership of devices with e-reading capabilities and reading habits in children aged 4-6 years. It was a correlational study conducted in Australia and involved slightly less than one thousand kids.

The Most Interesting Kid in The World

A secondary conclusion from the research, that is perhaps even more striking, is that presence of e-reading devices can inhibit regular reading. The more devices a child had access to, the less likely they were to read. So, if a parent is purchasing an e-reader for a child in hopes of spurring more reading, they are just as likely to get the opposite effect. They are better to spend their money on physical books or save it altogether and simply visit the library regularly.

A study on e-textbooks in 2013 at the University of Washington revealed 25% of students preferred printed textbooks even if the e-book was free.

This research is not necessarily brand new information. Studies show college students prefer physical books over electronic versions if the cost is the same. Even when electronic textbooks are available for free, twenty-five percent of college students still chose to purchase a physical version.  A survey of over 1,500 U. K. parents of children aged 0-8 found that 76% of the children prefer physical books to electronic versions. In a study from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, researchers found that only 15% of parents and children preferred reading e-books to traditional books.

Why Might Children Prefer Physical Books?

Children seem to know what is good for them and what they need. E-books often have too many bells and whistles that are distracting. Additionally, many of the studies above involved young children (under eight-years-old). These children are not only working on early literacy skills when they read, but also on fine motor skills like turning the pages and placing the books back on the shelf. They receive sensory input from the heft of the book in their hand and appreciate having a physical object which opens up their imagination. For young kids, a book can become part of an elaborate game of school (one for each stuffed animal) or an object for purchase in a pretend store or check-out in a pretend library. A physical book allows the child to utilize their imagination and not just during reading.

So, How Do We Get Kids Read

1. Read

If reading is such a valuable thing to do, why don’t they see you doing it? Spend your leisure time reading. Read physical books because children don’t know what you are doing on a tablet or e-reader (and you are more likely to get distracted into non-reading activities, not to mention strain your eyes, remember less of what you read and potentially inhibit melatonin production).

2. Read to Them

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Read to your children regularly. I aim to read to both of my kids for at least thirty minutes per day. We often go over. It doesn’t need to be thirty minutes constant, but can be broken into chunks based on your child’s age.

3. Display Books and Make Enticing Reading Areas

Make reading easy and interesting. Choose low shelving or open-face shelving that young children can access. Make little nooks that children will enjoy hanging out in. We have previously highlighted making a child’s closet into a nook and all the other simple reading nooks we have throughout our house.

Check out our former closet turned Dr. Seuss inspired reading nook.

4. Regularly Invest in Books

Most libraries will let you take a ton of books out each week.

Don’t buy a fancy tablet for your child. Buy some simple books. Or, better yet, plan to visit the library on a weekly basis and bring home a haul of books. Regularly spend time perusing books and curating a nice collection for your young reader.

5. Allow Downtime

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Reading is an obvious choice when there is a bit of downtime. I remember in elementary school that when I finished my seatwork, I was permitted to read. I regularly finished early in part because I had no attention to detail (still don’t), and in part because I was dying to read. Recently, a second-grade teacher informed me that now when children finish their seat work, they are permitted to play “educational” games on their tablets.

If you allow downtime in the car, at home, while waiting places, a book because an obvious choice to pass the time.

6. Turn off the Screens

As the research shows, the accessibility to screens decreased the likelihood of regular reading in young children. One of the big problems with screens is that they displace other activities (reading, being outdoors) that are far superior in their contributions to positive child development.

The Final Word

So, don’t overcomplicate a simple thing. If you want your kids to develop a love for reading, stick with the books.

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