Keeping Hands and Bodies Busy While Listening to Stories

One of the frustrations people most frequently voice to me centers around feeling like their children (or students) aren’t paying attention while listening to stories. But, literacy and brain research experts have shown that fidgeting or moving one’s body actually fired brain connections that help learning and listening happen more effectively? (Two of my favorites, Jim Trelease and Dr. Michael Gurian, have written about this if you’re interested in reading more).

So, what I’m saying is that read alouds don’t need to look perfect to be effective. In fact, if your goal is that all of your read-aloud sessions look like cozy cuddling times in a comfy chair in a well-lit room, your kids are going to be missing out on a lot of quality time with books! Instead, think about providing your children with quiet ways to occupy their hands and/or bodies, and see if it changes the duration or focus of your read-aloud time.

Some things your children can do while they listen to read alouds or audiobooks (links included are Amazon Affiliate links to products that we know and love in our own house):

  • Fidget! While spinner fidgets have been all the rage lately, when I was in the classroom, I often had kids fiddling with paper clips, small rocks, or small balls of clay or play dough. Anything small that kids can spin, flip, and twist in their hands can work wonders for their attention.
  • Build with Legos, blocks, Playmags, bristle blocks, etc. These tend to be quiet activities that some kids will do for HOURS… So put an audiobook on in the background and see what happens!
  • Model with clay or play dough
  • Color or draw. We go through drawing paper like no other in our house, but my oldest also loves coloring books like this, this and this (be sure to get these markers to go with that one!).

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  • Complete sticker mosaic puzzles. Our kindergartener loves the Paint By Sticker Kids books, but for more advanced sticker-placers, Paint By Sticker makes an “older” version of their books as well.
  • Play with dolls/stuffed animals.
  • Clean. While we have never intentionally done this during read-aloud time, this is a brilliant idea! I love the idea setting a goal for kids (“Can you pick up the legos by the end of this chapter?”) or simply using it as background noise for whatever their tasks are. I know I personally love listening to audiobooks while I fold laundry or do the dishes… Maybe my kiddos would too!
  • Eat! This is by FAR my girls’ favorite time to listen to stories, whether an audiobook through Audible or a picture book that we read. In fact, almost every time they sit down to eat, they ask for a story! Not only are they listening without distraction, I find that they usually eat a better meal if they have a story at the same time. Multi-tasking at its best, right?

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  • Stare out the window of a car, or even look at pictures in a completely different book while riding in the car! Our second-favorite time to listen to audiobooks is in the car. We have one going almost every single time we are in the car, even if it’s for less than 5 minutes. For some reason, both of my girls will listen to a whole chapter book via Audible, but have trouble with chapter books that we read snuggled up to them. And, our 3-year-old will often ask to look at one book while she listens to another one…
  • Do a puzzle (especially a great book-themed puzzle, like this Goodnight Moon one).

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  • Paint. For younger listeners, Melissa and Doug make great paint with water books, and their Water Wow! collection is mess-free too. Our girls LOVE these tempera paint sticks, and this paint set makes the brightest, best colors!
  • Play with stickers. You can usually find sheets of stickers in the dollar aisle at Target or at the dollar store. For books (which are easier to use in the car or on airplanes), we like these Usborne sticker books and these reusable sticker books.
  • Move their bodies by doing gymnastics/dance/stretch/yoga. You’d be surprised what your kid might remember when she is doing headstands on the couch!
  • Sew, finger knit, cross-stitch/needlework. We haven’t gotten here yet in our house, but I used to have co-workers who taught their second- and third-grade students to finger knit at the beginning of the school year, so that they could knit while they listened to lessons or stories throughout the year.
  • Explore sensory bins– especially if you have quiet materials in the bin. Kinetic sand, rainbow rice, water beads… I made slime for the girls over Thanksgiving a few weeks ago, but found that at any given time, my husband or my brother-in-law would mindlessly be playing with it while participating eagerly in conversation!
  • Play with small animal figurines. We’ve gotten some great sets from the dollar store in the past, but I also love Toob collections.

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  • Bead— small listeners can build fine motor skills stringing beads onto pipe cleaners, while older listeners might want to make necklaces or bracelets.
  • Make friendship bracelets. This is another one we haven’t done yet in our house, but my students used to love to do while they listened to stories. They can be simple braids or some of the more complex patterns out there.
  • Complete fuse beads creations. This is another favorite activity in our house to do when we’re listening to audiobooks. We’ve always gotten the Perler brand, but you can just search “fuse beads” for generic beads as well. For younger listeners, Perler makes Biggie Beads. The standard size is perfect for most, but if you want an extra challenge, they do make some tiny ones!
  • Write or journal. Another activity we haven’t gotten to yet in our house, but one I love for independent writers. Kids could write about the story they’re listening to, or simply journal about whatever’s on their minds!
  • Draw with sidewalk chalk. If you have a perfect day outside, try taking your read-aloud or audiobook outside! Sometimes simply changing scenery can make a huge difference to attentiveness.
  • Explore geoboards. We don’t own any, but I’ve got this one on my wish list for the girls!

Now, it may seem crazy that a mind attached to a moving, active body could be listening closely to a story, so here’s an anecdote from earlier this week in our house:

Just the other day, my beginning reader brought home Frog and Toad All Year from the library. She was incredibly proud to sit and read it to her little sister and me. And she did a great job! She powered through, figuring out some tricky words. But, almost as impressive was the number of words that our 3-year-old daughter could help her out with… Not because she’s one of the earliest readers ever, but because she’s listened to the audiobook of Frog and Toad All Year. Many times. Many many times. But, almost every time she listens to this story, she is doing something else. She’s playing with her baby, building with blocks, coloring, or chatting in the car. Yet, she knows this story. She can complete almost any sentence in the book! Though she may not have looked like it, she’s been listening intensely and absorbing lots of information about this story.

What are some things your kiddos like to do while they listen to stories?

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