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If you have a toddler who struggles to sit still, we've got good news.

Not too long ago, a new mum of an eight-month-old mentioned to me how excited she felt that her baby was no longer just interested in trying to chew on books whenever she attempted to read to him.

He was starting to sit in her lap and look at the pages while she read. She could even get through several books at a time!

As someone who’s always been passionate about reading aloud to young children — I especially loved reading to my own every night — I could absolutely understand her excitement. However, her comment also jogged something else that I’ve become increasingly passionate about over my many years as a parent, a paediatrician and an early educator: that is, the concept of putting “WIGGLE Skills” to work.

Think about it… Have you ever asked yourself why it is that we have come to believe that reading must always be a stationary activity? Why, based on all we know about physical restlessness going hand in hand with intellectual restlessness and curiosity, do we still picture an eager and engaged child who is truly ready to learn as one who sits perfectly still, criss-cross apple sauce on a defined spot on a reading rug and doesn’t fidget, move, or otherwise WIGGLE while listening to stories? Or, for that matter, one who keeps books out of his mouth?

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It’s hardly this mum or any parent’s fault that we’ve come to believe that’s the only way our children will absorb the stories that we read. But when you take a moment to think about how much young children not only need to WIGGLE, but can actually benefit from doing so, this image can sometimes be counter-productive – especially if it means we don’t read to them unless they’re able to sit “perfectly” still.

If that isn’t already enough to make you stop and think, I’d even go so far as to suggest that handling and chewing on books is one of the very earliest precursors to literacy. After all, we know that in order to become proficient in a skill down the road, young children (and adults, for that matter) first have to be interested, curious and engaged.

For an infant, using their mouth and their hands are the WIGGLE tools they have available at that stage for exploring the world – and the books – around them.

When viewed in this light, the idea of gumming and drooling on the corners of a book as a precursor to literacy doesn’t seem so outrageous. From there, toddlers soon learn to hold the book, and turn the pages, followed by the discovery that there are words on those pages. Before long, they realise those pages contain the stories they love that one day they’ll learn to read for themselves.

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Fortunately, someone really wise created durable board books that mean we can and should feel comfortable allowing even the youngest children (and by young, I mean babies!) to handle and explore books in the WIGGLE ways that come so naturally for them.

Dr Laura Jana. Image: Supplied.

With this in mind, I feel the need to add that I while I used to read literally hundreds of books to my children each year, this by no means implies that they sat perfectly motionless on my lap while I read page after page to them. Rather, I often read while they played, crawled, coloured, and otherwise WIGGLED attentively nearby – quiet activities that helped keep them engaged in the stories much longer. They would still stop what they were doing to eagerly turn their attention to the pictures.

Meanwhile, I knew that they were actively absorbing the vocabulary and stories contained in the books, not to mention enjoying the shared activity just as much — if not better — than if they were always sitting perfectly still paging through them with me.

I truly believe that by helping our children learn to “put their WIGGLES to work,” rather than simply work their wiggles out, we as parents can better reach our goal of equipping our children with the skills they will need to be able to set stretch goals, jump into things, be real go-getters, and truly believe that if they actively reach for the stars, they will stand a much better chance of actually reaching them!

This is an edited extract from 'The Toddler Brain' by Dr Laura Jana (Nero Books) out in all good book stores and online.

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