9 Surprising Benefits of Picture Books For Children
This post will explain what a picture book is, look into the history of the picture book, as well as help you to discover 9 surprising benefits of picture books for children.
I love picture books!
There, I said it.
They are amazing!
And not only do I love them, my little boy loves them too!
We read at least one pretty much every day (and often many, many more – or the same one many, many times).
Reading picture books can be a lovely way to bond with your child and create a wonderful piece of time you can spend together.
Reading is so important to children and reading picture books to them can be a wonderful first step down the lifelong road of book-loving.
Related if you’d like to learn more about the brilliant benefits of reading for children, check out this post.
Well then, ready to learn more about picture books?
Let’s get started!
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What actually is a picture book?
A picture book is a book (surprise), usually made for children, in which the illustrations are as important (or sometimes even more important) than the words that go with them. They work together to provide more than either could alone.
Many are rhyming books, and some even contain no words at all.
They’re great as they are often colourful and fun and easy for children to follow.
This post will explore the research behind the benefits of picture books but first:
A Very Brief History Of Picture Books
Telling stories through pictures isn’t new.
In fact, stories being represented by pictures dates back to the time of the earliest cave paintings but it’s only relatively recently that picture books have been around.
The first true picture books are thought to have been created by English author and illustrator Randolph Caldecott (1846-1886).
Maurice Sendak, the author of many lovely picture books including the wonderful Where The Wild Things Are, once wrote that:
“Caldecott’s work heralds the beginning of the modern picture book…Words are left out – but the picture says it. Pictures are left out – but the words say it. In short, it is the invention of the picture book.”
And in Caldecott’s honour in 1937, 51 years after his death, the Caldecott Medal was established to celebrate the artist who created the most distinguished picture book of that year.
The medal is still given out each year, the most recent winners being Wolf in the Snow in 2018 and Hello Lighthouse in 2019.
Even with this early interest, picture books only really began to gain widespread popularity towards the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.
This was partly because attitudes towards children were changing but also because new printing technologies were being developed that made it easier to mass produce books.
During the first part of the twentieth century, classic picture books such as Babar (1937) and Curious George (1941) were created.
There was a bit of a lull during and just after World War 2 as resources were scarce and any that were available were put towards the war effort. The paper shortages and general cutbacks that followed the war led to what Maria Popova called “a profound longing for color as escapism”.
She writes that in the 1950’s
“a peculiar cultural shift began to take place – the line between artist and author started to blur, and a crop of famous graphic designers set out to write and illustrate picture books as a way of exploring visual thinking.”
And the 1950s is the decade which saw Dr Seuss write some amazing classics such as The Cat In The Hat and How the Grinch Stole Christmas!.
After the 1950s the popularity of the picture book continued to rise decade after decade.
In the 1960s The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Where The Wild Things Are were written.
The 70’s brought us Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and Frog and Toad are Friends.
In the 1980s and 90s we got The Polar Express, Owl Moon, The Tiger Who Came to Tea and The Rainbow Fish, among many others.
And now, in the 21st century, millions and millions of picture books are published each year around the world.
So at least we have a lot to choose from!
The Benefits of Picture Books For Children
Well now we’ve learnt a little about the history of the picture book, let’s take a look at the benefits these amazing books can have for kids.
It’s one of the great benefits of picture books – you don’t have to be able to read to enjoy one.
That’s part of what makes them brilliant – especially for young or struggling readers.
My little boy (who’s not quite two yet) loves picking up a picture book and calling out all the different things he can see.
But more than that, the pictures help tell the story – children can see the mouse as it’s walking through the ‘deep, dark wood’ and they can see all the different characters he meets along the way.
The pictures help to establish the setting – we can see the tall trees the mouse passes under and the lake where he is ‘about to meet’ the Gruffalo.
And the pictures help develop the characters – children can see the startled look upon the mouse’s face as he stumbles upon the Gruffalo. Or the Gruffalo’s confused expression as the animals continue to hide ‘from the tiny mouse’.
In a great picture book, the text and illustrations complement each other and make the whole story so much better. So even if you can’t read, you can still get a feel of the story just by taking in the pictures.
Picture Books Can Help With Speech and Language Development
Anytime that we’re reading to children is going to be beneficial to a child’s language development. They will be taking in new words as they listen to you as well as hear the rhythm and patterns of spoken language.
In one analysis of research, reading to younger children was found to have strong effects on their speech development and understanding of language. The effects were found to be even greater if the child was read to at home, rather than in school.
Reading books to your children has also been found to improve their vocabulary, with the effects being greater in younger children. It has also recently been reported that children who are read to a lot at home can start school having heard around 1.4 million more words than those whose parents don’t read to them.
One study which found that exposure to picture books helped improve language development, wrote that the quality of the book reading was as important as how often you read books to them. They wrote that it was important for parents to ask questions and involve the children as they read.
Related If you’d like to learn 8 proven strategies to ensure your child gets the most out of the times you read together check out this post.
Because the average picture book has only around 500 words, the author must make sure that every word, sentence and paragraph are meticulously selected. They all have a job to do.
The text in a picture book has to be precise but also descriptive. That’s why picture books can be so great for language development because children listening to these books will be immersed in this rich language and they won’t be able to help but absorb some of it.
Rhyming picture books also often have recurring words or sentences. This repetition of language really helps to embed new words into children’s memories.
If you encourage them to read along with you it can also have substantial impacts on speech development as well.
Rhyming picture books again can be particularly important for this. As children get to hear a lot of the same words again and again they will know what’s going to come next and naturally start to speak along with you.
Our little boy loves shouting out parts of The Gruffalo as we read along. We’ve read it so many times that he knows exactly when to join in.
And when children become confident, reciting parts to you or someone else can really help improve their speaking skills and confidence.
The Benefits Of Picture Books – They Encourage Participation and Questioning
I know from working in schools that picture books lead to lots of questions.
Picture books are also great to encourage your little one to join in at home.
What’s this called?
How do you think they are feeling at the moment?
How many fish can you see?
And research has found that questioning can really help to improve understanding and encourage children to join in.
But not just questions, as I wrote above, pictures can be great for really young children to practise labelling things. That is a dog; that is a tree; it’s raining.
After you have read the same book a few times, or pointed out the same things in different books, children will naturally begin to point them out as well.
And this learning doesn’t stop at books! The things that they learn to spot in picture books can also be transferred to the objects they see in the real world.
Then there’s also the wordless picture books to consider, which have been shown to be an important tool for language development.
Without words, you and your kids need to work out what’s happening in the book. If they have great illustrations this can be fairly easy, but it still leads to lots of questions and some great discussion.
Without words, you and your children need to create the spoken story and this can be great fun and can lead to a really deep analysis of what you can see. There’s no longer a text to hold your hand and helpfully walk you through the story.
Another aspect of participation in picture books which can be easily overlooked is the physical involvement.
When you are reading to your little one, them sat upon your knee, they will often help you to turn the pages.
When a child turns a page, they are actually helping to take the story forward. The advancement of the tale requires their involvement and this is can be a brilliant way to give them some control over the telling, even if they cannot read yet.
It also helps to keep the child engaged, as they wait for your cue to let them know it’s time to move on.
Picture Books Can Boost Literacy Skills
Another of the amazing benefits of picture books – they can help children become better writers and readers.
According to The Power of Pictures, a project which has worked with 268 schools and eleven author-illustrators, picture books can be an amazing way to help boost literacy skills.
In a recent summary of their research so far they wrote:
“They [picture books] support the development of sophisticated reading skills, enabling children to develop deep comprehension skills and to learn about narrative structure and character development in an accessible way. Giving time and space for children to read, respond to and discuss the themes and structures of different picture books provides children with a strong understanding of how to construct a compelling narrative in an accessible way, including characterisation, setting, plot, creating empathy, pacing and structure.”
Listening to rhyming picture books can also help improve rhyme awareness and it’s been found that rhyme awareness can help improve phoneme (the smallest units of sound in a word) awareness.
This awareness can make it easier for children to break down and hear the different sounds of a word.
Also, rhymes are often represented by similar spelling sequences (e.g. wood and good). Children’s awareness of rhyme could therefore help them to group words and make reading and spelling easier.
Related Did you know that just like picture books, listening to nursery rhymes can also have many unexpected benefits for your children. To learn more read this interesting article.
Wordless picture books have also been shown to inspire storytelling and the invention of narratives.
Picture Books Can Help Children Learn to Count And Improve Other Maths Skills As Well
The benefits of picture books just keep on coming as they can also help children to improve children’s mathematical understanding.
In Holland, they use an approach to mathematics education called Realistic Mathematics Education.
The Dutch believe that children should start learning mathematics by using something that is familiar and makes sense to them.
Sounds like a good idea!
This approach to mathematics views maths as a part of everyday life and so can also be a major part of many of the stories told in picture books – not just ones that are specifically aimed at teaching maths.
This idea has been backed up research which has shown that when reading normal picture books children often think mathematically.
One report, which looked at the effects of picture books on mathematical thinking on children in an inner-city school, found that picture books helped children to learn about:
- Geometry – noticing shapes and how objects fit together and can be moved
- Data Handling – statistical thinking and recognising patterns and making predictions
- Measurement – thinking about weight and length and comparing amounts
Their learning all occurred naturally and was apparent in the discussions that happened after the readings.
Many picture books also involve counting – and this counting is often forwards as well as backwards.
Children can learn so much through ‘normal’ picture books but there are also many picture books that focus specifically on teaching different maths skills.
For example, Place Value by David Adler, which has been written specifically to help children learn about (unsurprisingly) place value.
The Benefits of Picture Books – Boosting Creative and Artistic Thinking
Picture books can be awesome to get children thinking creatively and to come to really enjoy and think about illustration and the messages that pictures try to get across.
They can help with this as they can aid children in developing something called multimodal communication. That is simply communicating through different ways.
In picture books this happens as the story is told using the words (one mode) but also by the pictures (another mode). But if you think about it a lot of communication is multimodal. When you speak on the phone you need to listen as well as talk. When we are just speaking to each other we often use our voices as well as gestures.
Because picture books are so reliant on the images, they can help children to start thinking artistically and begin to think about how they can express themselves and communicate through their own art.
In Children Reading Pictures: Interpreting Visual Texts, the authors write that young children pay more attention to the picture than the words, and that through just the pictures the children are able to understand different viewpoints, and make sense of moods, messages and character’s emotions.
This shows that picture books help children understand illustrations better and the messages that pictures try to get across.
And it’s been shown that children can use the techniques they observe in picture books in their own artwork.
The authors of the report wrote that:
“In their sketchbooks the children brainstormed ideas for stories and created artwork. The picture books, experiences, and discussions around these books occurred in the classroom and during art instruction, creating a natural connection and flow between what the children were learning and doing in reading and in art.”
They also explained that, through the use of picture books, children began to look more closely at “elements of line, color, and shape and the principles of movement and pattern.”
And that the pictures in picture books helped children to learn to ‘read’ the illustrations, which lead to deeper understanding and helped them to think critically and creatively, as well as to be able to use some of what they had learnt in their own drawings.
Another paper also found that picture books improves the creative use of expressive vocabulary.
They Can Increase Children’s General Knowledge
There are so many great picture books out there and they cover a huge range of topics.
Nonfiction picture books give children the chance to experience the magic of the real world.
They can learn about predators and their prey and how the world’s different animals interact.
About the planets of our solar system, Earth and its forests, deserts, jungles and oceans.
They can also travel through history and learn of other lands, times, places and peoples.
All from the comfort of their couch (or classroom)!
Barbara Moss, author and professor of literacy education at San Diego State University, wrote that nonfiction children’s books can teach children “concepts and terms associated with a variety of topics and people, places, and things they may never encounter in real life.”
She also writes that these types of books can “whet their appetites for information” and encourage them to learn about different topics.
Even in fiction picture books children will learn things.
They will start to be able to recognise different animals and objects as you come across them and point them out to your children.
And they’ll be able to transfer this knowledge into the real world.
They Can Help Children To Develop A Sense Of Humour
Picture books are often funny – it’s part of what adds to their charm.
And who doesn’t love to laugh?
Laughing together with your little one, over something you both find funny, can bring you closer and be a lovely way to bond.
And there’s so many funny picture books out there!
Some will have your children giggling at the silliness, like Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!
Others, like The Incredible Book Eating Boy, are clever and witty.
And some help children begin to learn about irony, like the Scaredy Squirrel series.
The great thing about these amusing picture books is there is often a moral that accompanies the chuckles.
Picture Books Are Fun And Can Help Build A Love Of Reading
This follows on from the above point and is one of the benefits of picture books that shouldn’t be overlooked.
Research has shown that if children are read to and enjoy reading from a young age they are much more likely to develop a lifelong-lasting love of reading.
If you start reading to your children when they are young, and continue to read books that they find fun and engaging they will love books.
Reading and looking at picture books should be a time that children look forward to every day.
I know I do!
Whether it’s snuggling with my little boy at home to read Stick Man for the 700th time, or reading that morning’s elected book to the class (we do a little class vote every morning to decide which picture book we’ll read that day).
And I still have very fond memories of being read to as a child and I really hope that I am helping create similar memories my boy will be able to hold onto as he grows.
And Picture Books Aren’t Just For Little Kids!
As I mentioned before picture books are accessible. So they can be great for older struggling readers.
But even older children who are amazing at reading can still enjoy and learn from picture books.
Picture books can be great for creating discussion and getting older children to think deeper.
Older children will also be able to better make inferences and draw on their previous knowledge to understand and relate to the stories.
According to Teaching with Picture Books in the Middle School, picture books can stimulate thinking, teach children about the history of literature, promote reading development and extend knowledge of language and literature.
So picture books aren’t just for the little ones.
In fact, many picture books are created especially with older children (or even adults) in mind. Some touch upon themes that would be too mature for a very young audience and many contain humour that would go completely over a toddler’s head.
Shaun Tan is an author who immediately springs to mind.
He’s an amazing illustrator and his wordless picture book The Arrival showcases just what he can do! It tells the tale of an immigrant who has to leave his wife and daughter behind to travel to a strange new world.
He also illustrated an awesome book by Gary Crew called The Viewer. This book takes a dark and eerie look back through the history of humanity. It has some mystery about it and would definitely not be fully understood by younger readers (and may even be a bit frightening for them).
Some Of Our Favourite Picture Books
I thought I’d include some of mine and my little boy’s favourite picture books here.
There may be some you haven’t heard of, or ones you read when you were younger and forgot about.
Who knows? Maybe you’ll discover a new gem to read with your little ones…
“Stick Man lives in the family tree With his Stick Lady Love and their stick children three.”
I found it really hard to choose a favourite Julia Donaldson as we love so many of them but Stick Man just won for me in the end. It’s a heartwarming adventure which always makes me laugh and I love Axel Scheffler’s illustrations – there’s always something else to notice.
Lost and Found (Oliver Jeffers)
“Once there was a boy who found a penguin at his door…”
Again I struggled to choose as I love Oliver Jeffers as well. His art style is so whimsical and playful. I really want to get some prints for my little boy’s room. This book shares a lovely story of friendship and teamwork.
Going on a Bear Hunt (Michael Rosen)
“We can’t go over it, we can’t go under it, we’ll have to go through it”
This is a book that I remember being read to at school. It’s a great adventure and uses some lovely adjectives and repetitive phrases so is great for language development.
This is a cute story about equality and how it doesn’t matter where you are born – we’re all the same really. It also offers lots of opportunities to get some finger and toe squeezing in.
Ten Little Pirates (Simon Rickerty and Mike Brownlow)
I wrote above about how picture books can help with counting and this is a cute book which helps children learn to count (forwards and backwards). It’s definitely my favourite of the series.
This book has some amazing artwork and tells the story of a girl who finds an elephant calf whose mother has been hunted. It’s touching and powerful.
Oh The Places You’ll Go! (Dr Seuss)
“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.”
A classic by Dr Seuss! I chose this one over his others as I really like the message of positivity and how anything is possible. Something every child should believe!
Who Are You, Stripy Horse? (Jim Helmore and Karen Wall)
“In the tick-tock quiet, a shaft of moonlight tickles the nose of something sleeping.”
What I love most about this book is the evocative language it uses. It’s a story about a toy who can’t remember who he is and the adventure he embarks upon to find out.
White Owl, Barn Owl (Nicola Davies)
I’m including this book as it’s one of my little boy’s favourites at the moment. It’s also brilliant if you are at all interested in owls and wildlife in general. It is an informative story of a Grandpa and his granddaughter who try to see an owl.
This is another one that children will enjoy joining in with. It’s a funny story about a ‘helpful’ dog. My little boy loves shouting ‘No!’ at every opportunity!
There are hundreds more I could include here, and I’ll keep this updated if I come across something amazing.
So now you know some of mine and my boy’s faves, I’d love to hear some of yours in the comments section as I think it would be really cool to have Reader’s Favourite Picture Books section.
I’d love to discover some new books.
So please don’t be shy and let me know below and I’ll update this post to include a list!
Related if you’d like to discover some awesome bedtime read alouds check out this super list.
Final thoughts on The Benefits of Picture Books For Children
I hope that’s helped to show you how amazing the picture book really is!
Not only are they fun and engaging they also can provide many benefits for our children.
So to recap, the benefits of pictures books for kids are:
- They are accessible to young children and struggling readers
- Picture books help with children’s speech and language development
- They can boost kid’s literacy skills
- Picture books can help children to think creatively and artistically
- They can also improve their mathematical thinking
- Picture books can also improve general knowledge
- They can be funny and help children develop a sense of humour
- And they can help kids learn to love books and reading
And remember picture books don’t just have to be for toddlers and little kids, there are plenty that older children can enjoy as well!
If you’d like to discover some more awesome picture books, I have a Pinterest Board dedicated to great children’s books which you can check out here.
Well, I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed researching it.
If you did, or found it interesting, please share using the buttons below and if you’d like to read more about the science of parenting you could also subscribe…
So until next time,
Let’s nurture those neurons!
References And Further ReadingClick here for references
- Added Value of Dialogic Parent-Child Book Readings: A Meta-Analysis
- Diversity in Adults’ Styles of Reading Books to Children
- Do maternal interaction and early language predict phonological awareness in 3- to 4-year-olds?
- Enhancing English Learners’ Language Development Using Wordless Picture Books
- Get the Picture? The Effects of Iconicity on Toddlers’ Reenactment From
- Picture Books
- Home And Family Influences On Motivations For Reading
- If They Don’t Read Much, How They Ever Gonna Get Good?
- Illustrations, Text, And The Child Reader: What Are Pictures In Children’s Storybooks For?
- Phonological Skills And Learning To Read
- Picture Books Stimulate The Learning Of Mathematics
- Picture Books as an Impetus for Kindergartners’ Mathematical Thinking
- Reading and Writing Multimodally in First Grade
- Reading to Young Children in Educational Settings: A Meta‐Analysis of Recent Research
- Realistic Mathematics Education
- Should You Read Aloud To Your Children?
- The Effect Of A Program Of Reading Aloud To Middle Grade Children In The Inner City
- The Power Of Pictures
- Teaching with Picture Books in the Middle School
- Transfer Between Picture Books And The Real World By Very Young Children
- Using Children’s Nonfiction Tradebooks as Read-Alouds
- Using Wordless Picture Books To Support Emergent Literacy
- When Children Are Not Read To At Home: The Million Word Gap
- Using Wordless Picture Books to Support Emergent Literacy
This post should be required reading for all new parents. We continue to be dismayed, as elementary teachers, at how many students come to school with no exposure to print or picture books. My son absolutely devours them and has started “reading” them to me now. Thank you for stating their importance.
Hi again Kimberlie,
Unfortunately, it’s the same at our school as well.
It actually makes me quite sad, not only are the children missing out but reading together is so special that the parents are missing out too!
Where The Wild Things Are was a favorite of mine as a kid. Going back to it now i was amazed at how it contained almost no dialogue
That’s the power of a great picture book – the pictures add so much to the story! A bit of childhood imagine doesn’t hurt either!
Our favourites are The Tiger Who Came To Tea, and The Cat In The Hat – great list.
Thanks for reading,
I’ll add them to the list!
We love picture books too! My four year old likes to ‘read’ us the stories now and she knows We’re Going On A Bear Hunt word for word!
That’s great that your 4 year old knows the story well enough to retell it and We’re Going On A Bear Hunt is one of our favourites too!
I just featured a similar guest post on my site about picture books and how important their message can be to young readers. I still count picture books as legitimate reads and love to hear about the new batch coming up in the world. So, thanks!
Picture books are brilliant and are great for both young and older readers. I love that my little boy is into them and we can go ‘picture book hunting’ together!
I’ll have to check out your post!