Traditionally, a culture’s stories helped its youngsters acclimatise to the culture’s way of doing things and way of seeing the world, including the tales of creation or heroic exploits. In the western world, we are spoilt for choice with an absolutely vast array of children’s literature available to read and enjoy. Often we can access this for free, too, with fantastic libraries and book schemes. So even a lack of money doesn’t need to stand in the way of sharing this most valuable gift with your child.
A great deal of research has been undertaken covering the importance of stories and drama on a child’s learning journey. It makes interesting reading but does the layperson or ordinary parent have to trawl through the research to discover why stories are valuable? No! Simply reading to our child is the beginning of a wonderful and lifelong journey of learning. It is often the things we do without thinking that are the catalyst for major growth and change in our child’s life. After all, children are designed from the moment they are born to learn, to accumulate information and to grow, so they will naturally snatch any opportunity to do so. The human brain is working in astounding ways all the time. But it sometimes helps to have a reminder of why sharing stories is so important, even if just to give ourselves a pat on the back, or to understand a developmental leap in our child. And sometimes, stories enable us to access our child’s emotions and experiences in a way other mediums can’t. So, here are five reasons why sharing stories is life-changing for your child:
1. Stories teach emotional intelligence
Babies are naturally interested in pictures of other babies, and it’s wondrous to witness a tiny tot recognising and responding to the expressions of other babies: smiles, laughter and tears. I remember feeling very moved when my son looked up at me from a picture of a crying baby with an expression of deep concern on his face, and uttered plaintively; ‘Baby. Crying!’. As children grow, they begin to connect with the characters in their books, to experience their joys and triumphs, to laugh with them and cry with them. Those who read avidly throughout their childhoods will often remember the handful of books that had the biggest impression on them – and it usually encompassed some tragedy for the hero/heroine that cut to the heart. Our human experiences can be messy, upsetting, complicated, tragic, and stories help a child to understand that they are not alone, that other people also have good times and bad times.
2. Stories teach social skills and promote an understanding of community
Morality underpins the way in which a culture interprets a person’s worth whether we like it or not. From their newborn days, we prepare a child for life within the particular community and culture they find themselves in by the ways in which we talk to them and the activities we encourage and those we don’t. To a certain extent, this is a vital part of a youngster’s learning process: they might choose to rebel and throw off the limitations of their parents, but they will need to understand the context in which they are living to either accept it or challenge it. Stories are an important part of this process – from stories intended to give a framework to a certain religion to fables and myths that teach the ‘best way’ to act. Most picture books gently encourage behaviour that respects others and in cases where children act selfishly or in unkindness, there is almost always comeuppance. Often this comes as a character’s realisation of the consequences of their actions and immediately taking steps to resolve the situation. This can be seen in some of the simplest and most pleasing picture books, such as Axel Scheffler’s Pip and Posy series. In this way, stories begin the process of empathy for others that advances as the child grows. They can also help encourage the dialogue of sharing, apologising, and caring for others.
3. Stories enhance language skills
Perhaps one of the most important things we can do for our child’s understanding of language is to read to them. The joy of witnessing your child accumulate words, and begin to associate them with the pictures and inherent feelings, is one of the earliest benefits of a reading relationship. Research shows that stories are beneficial for all children, whatever their ‘learning style’ – auditory, visual, kinaesthetic, or a combination – and actually help them develop their unique style and preference. Stories also help to make basic vocabulary memorable, as is the case with picture books where colourful images spark the imagination. Even at a very young age, before they understand the words, babies and toddlers are hearing the sounds of the language and picking up rhythm and intonation. Rhymes and poems are a fun way to discover language – a reminder that words can be playful, silly and irreverent too.
4. Stories encourage play learning
As your child’s book repertoire grows, and they begin to identify with different characters, you’ll notice that it enhances their playtime. Identification with characters in turn enables role play, or the experience of ‘walking in someone else’s shoes’. Listen carefully to your child’s solitary play and you may well hear snatches of dialogue from favourite stories, or a story’s outcome being explored in a different way e.g. if the characters had done things differently what might have happened? Children also act out the archetypes of stories: the hero/heroine, the baddie, the monster, the battle between good and evil. Stories spark creativity and imagination in ways that can astound us as adults: it’s amazing to see a group of kids take a simple story and expand upon it, fleshing out the characters, developing storyline and dialogue, having fun.
5. Stories open up discussion and understanding on significant issues
Take, for instance, a situation where a child is afraid of the dark or has nightmares. There are plenty of children’s books that address these issues – and many, many more issues besides – through the format of storytelling. This allows the child to explore the feelings and emotions around a particular situation but at a distance e.g. the child/animal in the story is experiencing the problem, not the child themselves. So a child is able to identify with the character’s problem and witness their approach to addressing and resolving it. In The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark by Jill Tomlinson, the little owl discovers that far from being “nasty” as he originally believes, the dark is beautiful, exciting and necessary. He learns this through the people he meets along the way – the book has a traditional ‘quest’ style storyline in a wonderfully-illustrated, simple format – and his life is enhanced as he is no longer afraid of the dark. Stories can also tackle some more challenging subjects that might be difficult to broach in a face-to-face setting such as death, loss and abuse for example. Child therapists often use a simple story to open up an area for discussion or to indicate to the child that they’re not alone.
These are just of the ways in which stories will enhance your child’s life. Anyone who enjoyed books during their own childhood will know that the characters and the lessons learnt are companions for life, both comforting us and challenging us as we grow. Happy reading!