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Once Upon a Story

by Parent Connect 8 months ago in advice

The act of storytelling is ancient and has never lost relevance with children because of its many benefits. Writer Nandini Nagpal explains how storytelling is a great way to educate children in the areas of cognitive, social and behavioural development.

The Why, What, and How of Storytelling

Stories have been told since time immemorial, and are necessary for our survival. It is probably the oldest form of communication, used much before the written word was introduced. Our ancestors told stories to pass on wisdom, learning, values, beliefs, traditions and culture to the next generation and they in turn passed it on to the following generation. We are storytellers at our core and in the very depths of our being. It is ingrained in each one of us.

When I reflected about my own journey as a storyteller, I realised that it led me all the way back to my childhood, when my grandparents used to tell me stories. But, why should we tell stories to our children, when they already have so many other forms of entertainment around them?

As parents, we want to engage with, influence, educate and inspire our children. Stories are effective in doing exactly this. They help impart values to children in a non-threatening way without preaching.

Here are a few benefits of telling stories to children:

Cognitive

Our brain loves stories! Our mind thinks in images, not in words, and stories help transfer these images into the minds of the listener. Stories create a neural connection between the teller and listener. A study published by Hasson et al. (2012) revealed that during verbal and non-verbal communication, similar areas of the speaker’s and listener’s brain are activated, a process known as neural coupling.

Stories help build the imagination, language skills, and creativity. They strengthen creative/visual thinking, memory recall, as well as develop problem solving skills. Moreover, engaging children in discussions and asking open-ended questions after the story, helps them process and internalise the story, as well as encourages them to express their views and opinions.

Emotional

Storytelling is not only a connection between minds. It is also a heart to heart connection. When parents and caregivers tell stories to children, it strengthens the relationship and creates a deep bond. Stories also bring up a range of emotions within us. Learning to be aware of those emotions, name them, and express them, builds emotional literacy, one of the key contributors to well-being. Stories build empathy as children connect with one or more characters in the story. Stories create a sense of awe and wonder, reduce stress, and instil hope.

Behavioural and Social

Stories also increase attention span and focus. They improve communication skills and listening skills. The very act of engaged listening is calming and grounding. Stories help us to slow down. In our busy, noisy and distracted world, stories offer moments of silence and quiet reflection, which is something we all (not just our children) need today. When a child listens to a linear and simple story of how the protagonist reaches their goal by overcoming obstacles, it can motivate them to persevere, build resilience, and develop grit — qualities that contribute towards well-being.

Stories help us to take action. For example, if a child listens to a story about an animal that is hurt, it can motivate them to stand up against animal abuse and/or volunteer to help at an animal shelter. Such acts create a positive impact on our society, making the world a better place.

Storytelling is not the same as reading stories. Reading is important for literacy, and reading aloud to children has many benefits. However, in oral storytelling, there is a direct engagement with the listener without the ‘barrier’ of the written text. The storyteller maintains eye contact with the listener while using voice, gestures, and facial expressions to enhance the story. It does take a little practice, but it’s definitely worth the effort! The look in your child’s eyes will say it all!

As parents, we want to engage with, influence, educate and inspire our children. Stories are effective in doing exactly this. They help impart values to children in a non-threatening way without preaching.

As parents, we want to engage with, influence, educate and inspire our children. Stories are effective in doing exactly this. They help impart values to children in a non-threatening way without preaching.

As a general guideline, younger children enjoy and are able to follow stories with more linear plots involving 2–3 characters. However, as they grow older, you could choose stories with more characters and more complex plots. Children can be exposed to a variety of themes and genres including folktales, fairy tales, myths, legends, parables, fables, personal stories and true stories.

Some of the themes of storytelling include:

Animal/nature stories: Children are very tuned in with nature and simple stories about animals or nature work very well for them. In some stories, we see animals with human qualities and dilemmas. Such stories help children to relate to their own emotions and struggles, if a safe and non-threatening space is maintained.

By Nam Anh on Unsplash

Cultural Stories: Sharing stories of one’s own, as well as other cultures and traditions, expands the child’s world view, and teaches them to be inclusive. As cultural awareness grows through stories, it is only natural that respect for other cultures also grows. Parents can include ‘fun-facts’ about the country/culture to increase the child’s knowledge of that particular culture or country.

By Dominique Cottin on Unsplash

Personal/family stories: Simple stories about your own childhood, stories of personal success and more importantly, failure are very powerful. Family stories help build intergenerational bridges, as they are passed on orally across generations. Stories of unsung heroes in the family, can also have a profound impact on the child.

By Laura Fuhrman on Unsplash

Humorous stories: Children have a natural ‘joie-de-vivre’ and love funny stories! Humour has proven to be beneficial for all ages and plays a strong role in psychological health and wellbeing. This genre is a sure-shot with children.

By Elizabeth Jamieson on Unsplash

Stories of famous people: For older children, stories of famous people, their childhood, their struggles, and their accomplishments can be very inspiring.

By Andrew George on Unsplash

Stories of royalty: Children love stories of kings and queens, princes and princesses! These stories can be particularly engaging, as most of us can only imagine life in a palace. If you tell a true story, be careful not to turn it into a history lesson.

By Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Here are a few pointers when telling stories to children:

  1. Tell a story that you like. If you don’t like it, don’t tell it. As popular as the story may be, children will not connect to it, if you don’t resonate with it yourself.
  2. Staying objective creates space for sharing different perspectives, and so it is important to be aware of your own racial, cultural and personal biases, as well as your emotional triggers when sharing a story. If you find that a story triggers your emotions, it may be best to avoid telling it, till you can manage your own sentiments around it.
  3. Move away from the single narrative. Refrain from insisting on or, in fact, even sharing a specific learning from the story. We have a tendency to ask the child the ‘moral of the story’. Very often, children take away a different learning than what the parent may have thought of. When we focus on one moral, we close the opportunity for other perspectives to emerge.
  4. Tell the story in your own words. This will help you and your child to connect deeper with the story.

Storytelling can be the glue that helps you stay connected and bonded with your children. The story is a ship that transports wisdom across oceans and across generations, and it is time to awaken the storyteller in you.

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