Audio books are a funny little thing, especially for children, nowadays. You’d think that that’s whom they’re cut out for, but not many children listen to audio books, actually. I remember the audio books of my childhood, strongly and fondly. You do, too, I’m sure. They, actually, make some of my earliest memories, now. I listened to ‘Ivica i Marica’ (Hansel and Gretel) and ‘Šuma Striborova’ (Stribor’s Forest), a story of dubious gender morality, by Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić, touted as ‘Croatian Andersen’, funnily enough, over and over – as much, if not more, for the worlds they drew me into with soundscapes, music and narration, as for the story. Being lost in these forests stretched time for me; and made the experience particularly edgy, because I listened to it on my own – I got lost and found on my own AND I controlled the cassette player on my own, rewinding, fast-forwarding, stopping and starting, as I wanted to hear the story. When I catch sight of Zak now, listening to an audio book, I recognise that lost-in-story look of wonder in his eyes, that you get when no one’s watching you.
Today, while audio books are on the rise, as the fastest-growing medium, because adults welcome the consumption of literature ‘on the go’, children’s attention is being consumed by the all-powerful visual media; and parents want to spend the precious time they have with their children, reading the stories themselves. It’s understandable. I imagine, they’d also like to avoid an extra cause for a tantrum, by suggesting the listening to a story, instead of the watching of Netflix on a tablet, while the dinner is being made. Not all! I exaggerate. Still, I have had questions, from willing and enthusiastic parent friends, ‘when do you get him to listen to audio books?’. It’s an honest and fair question. The culture of this enjoyment is, simply, somewhat lost. The screen has taken over.
Obviously, I’m biased, but not nearly as much because I make audio books, as because I despise screen time. The debilitating effect of screen time on children is acknowledged by all of us; and expanding on it will add nothing to its reduction and everything to the increase of the parents’ feeling of guilt. What do we do?! Is there a way out of it?! Really?! Without damaging them in some other way?!
There are many ways and they are all different for all of us, obviously. Some of us go for the all-or-nothing approach – the hard cut of ‘all things screen’, or the go-with-the-flow licence to ‘watch as much as you want’. Others have timers / schedules / content control / technology selection / rewards / punishments... or substitutes.
Well, may I propose a substitute, softened by a still rather high level of stimulus and a potential change of routine or culture? If your child isn’t in the habit of listening to audio books, put one on in the background, while you play a board game, have a meal , help them get dressed or do any other activity, in the day time and TOGETHER! Don’t place emphasis on the audio book as an event, but introduce it as a casual by-the-by, background thing, that it will be! The books we love and, I think, make a great audio-book listening introduction for the very small children of 3 years of age and up, are The Cat in The Hat and Other Stories (Dr Seuss), read by Adrian Edmondson, Beatrix Potter works, read by Vivien Leigh, Mr Men series, read by Arthur Lowe and That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown, read by Tamsin Greig. That should be enough to kick start the process. Listening to the soundtracks of the musicals the child is familiar with will also develop that habit that we all have, of having some music in the background. Over the time, their audio-book listening will grow more and more independent and they will ask for the ones they’ve heard and search for the new ones, at their own initiative – at that solo breakfast before school, while painting a new mug, building a train or sitting on one.
But, why are audio books so good for children?! Oh, my, oh, my! They are not good only for children – they are the free Masters degree holding babysitter, with an educational lesson plan, on tap. Audio books open up children’s imagination, in the way that no other medium can. They let the children create their own vision of the world of the story, increase their vocabulary, introduce them to the diversity of voices and interpretations; and, of course, like all stories, improve their understanding of themselves and the world around them. Last, but not least, they are a celebration of a collaborative human endeavour – thought, language, voice, music and technology.
So, next time you’re about to disappear for half an hour behind a stove, instead of flicking on a favourite Netflix program, try suggesting a play with an intricate toy that collected some dust in the recent past; and put a book on, in the background. If it’s good, turn it up – they’re not just for kids.