Stories are magical. Most people have a special memory connected to a special story. Some of us have a special story that connects us to our past and even supports our identity. For many reasons, stories have existed for millennia, and are integral in social societies.
I composed a paper some years ago that outlined why stories and storytelling are integral to the healthy growth of children. Stories and storytelling provide children with ways of learning and growing in many important and basic developmental areas: cognitive, social, emotional, and self-identity.
Cognitively, stories ask children to develop language skills, follow lines of logic, learn vocabulary, learn social roles, develop and exercise memory, understand culture, predict outcomes, and have a basis for relating to others. I could go on for paragraphs, or even pages, with all the benefits. In fact, it is proven that the brain is hard-wired to accept and process stories, and this is why we remember a well-crafted story for a very ling time.
Socially, children gain significantly from storytelling. Do you remember sitting in someone’s lap while getting a story read to you? Wasn’t it wonderful to have that person’s attention and to share an intimate story experience together? And do you remember being with siblings or with a class and experiencing the story together? It’s these shared experiences that create relationships and shape future social interactions. And one step further; if you ever re-enacted these stories with others, you were continuing to learn social rules and social roles that you built on and now refer to as an adult.
Experiencing emotions through storytelling can be safer for children than experiencing them directly. If a child hears of a character that is frightened or depressed, he can experience those emotions with the character in a supportive and healthy context, and even learn how to handle those emotions in a positive way through the story or characters present. The storyteller or other listeners can support the child too, by empathizing and helping the child label feelings that are new – or even scary – to experience. The storyteller can be a guide that facilitates the processing of emotions that the child experiences.
One of the roles of stories is to allow us to understand and “try on” different roles. As we listen of characters that run the gamut of descriptors, we travel from the “evil villain” end of the spectrum to the “delightful princes” or “brave and strong hero”, and back again. Though these can be cause for stereotypes, I believe it allows children to “try on” different roles while listening, but even more so when enacting stories themselves. This sets up children to make decisions about who they will become in the future, and how and why.
Story time should not be overlooked, dismissed, or glossed over. It is a very important part of childhood development. Learning so much during what appears to be a simple activity is what childhood is really all about. So, be it The Paperbag Princess, The Tale of Benjamin Bunny, or Bible Stories, I highly recommend reading to your children at every given opportunity, and to play out these games with them after reading. Make it a special time involving simple, repeated rituals that enhance the experience. I can promise that you and your child will benefit from these wonderful interactions.