The school year is winding down, and children across the area are getting ready for the long, lazy days of summer. And although they will not have homework assignments to complete, tests to take or worksheets to fill out, important learning can still take place, particularly for younger children. Summer, with its late evenings and more relaxed pace, is the perfect opportunity for parents to set aside special bonding time with their children. One of the most beneficial activities parents can do with their kids during that time is to read aloud with them.

Numerous studies over the years have reinforced the benefits that come when parents read with their children, beginning with babies. Many development experts say that reading to your child is the single most valuable thing a parent can do. In addition to being an ideal way to carve one-on-one time out of the day, it also gives children a head start on some very measurable skills.

According to the Web site www.childliteracy.com, reading with your babies and children gives them experience with different types of language, rhythms and sounds. Research shows that pre-school children who are exposed to plenty of language (books and conversation) tend to do better at school. The site also says that reading teaches about many topics that would not normally come up in conversation. Reading is a gift that will benefit our children for a lifetime. Developing a love for reading at an early age is an important part of that process, though.

The question many of us ask, and some of us fail to answer, is how in our hectic lives can we make time for reading? With all the school, sports, church, civic, work and other activities that take so much of our time, it can be difficult to make reading a priority. Instead we tell ourselves we’re going to “relax” in front of the television or go our separate ways to our bedrooms for “quiet time.” Reading a couple of books with your child just before bedtime can take as little as 10 minutes. Those few minutes give parents enough time to read a couple of books, answer questions and help their child settle down for the night. What better relaxation is there for parents than a child who goes to bed on time?

Beyond bedtime, opportunities to engage in reading activities are numerous. How much of our day is spent reading — instructions, recipes, directions, mail, cards, street signs? How many opportunities do we as parents have over the course of a day to teach reading skills to our children? Most kids are naturally inquisitive and making sure we take time to point to and sound out letters on storefronts, street names and other common signs helps feed that curiosity and plants the seed to reading.

Many parents fall into the trap of focusing on reading with a first child and not so much with the second. During a recent outing, nearly every man with children sitting at the table admitted they had made the mistake and encouraged those who were there with younger kids to make sure we made to time to read with them both.

There are many reasons why it’s important to make the time to read with our children — and most of us know those reasons. The difficulty sometimes lies in the making it a priority. But there is no investment that will give us a greater return over the years.

Early reading experiences are now recognized as being of such importance that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that “pediatricians prescribe reading activities along with other instructions given to parents at the time of well-child visits.” Experts agree that reading is one of the best ways parents can prepare their children for school and the future. Children will learn to embrace reading if they see their parents picking up a newspaper or book during their downtime, as well as if reading is an activity done together.

Bill Crist is associate publisher of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Wednesday. He may be reached by e-mail at bill.crist@brownwoodbulletin.com.