The Importance of Story-telling to Children

A common complaint that most parents have is that their child does not pay attention to what they say. Often these complaints are a result of not being to handle the restlessness and energy of the child to a directed goal. However, these complaints seem to vanish during story-time between parents and their kids. The child is often seen listening attentively, getting curious, asking the what, why, how questions, even associating deeply with some characters from the stories they have been told. Why do children, who are complained about for not being attentive, suddenly forge such deep connections with stories? What is that magic or power in stories that engulfs them in its world?

The Power of Stories

Story-telling has always been a part of our culture. But this culture seems to have taken a back seat due to various reasons pertaining to modern-day living. Stories are repositories of culture, people and location. If we realise the inherent potential in stories for the development of human beings, we are bound to make some time for them during the course of the day.

Children grow with language in and around them. Adults try to engage with the child by making different sounds and using baby speech. The child in turn makes sound and imitates adults in terms of body language, mannerisms and speech. This journey of establishing communication is gradual and paves the way for meaning-making in children. This communication can be effectively enhanced by introducing your child to the world of stories.

Children should be exposed to as many stories as possible and from a very young age. Stories open up a world of possibilities, of imagination and of relations- relations with fellow humans, with different cultures and traditions and with nature. Stories give flight to fancy and vision. Things which are living and non-living seem to talk to each other. The beginning, middle and end in a well-told story often allows room for curiosity; curiosity that is spontaneous and one that allows for a creative response. Stories bring to life various characters. Often children are seen relating to the characters of a well-told/well-written story. They also want adults to address them by a character’s name if they identify with the traits of the character or if they want to emulate the character. They also address others around them as so and so character from their favourite story.

By weaving in different themes, stories also help children become perceptive and sensitive beings. The child who initially associates with I, me, myself, gradually learns to associate with things and people surrounding him/her; be it trees, forests, animals, birds, family members, house-helps, shopkeepers, workers, places, and eventually the nation and the global world. Stories allow children to step into the shoes of people and things that might be distant or strange to them. Stories also have tendency to put children in a moral dilemma. All these tropes allow children to surface their emotions, feelings, fears, judgements and dilemmas. Children start noticing things in their environment and become more attentive to their immediate surroundings. Stories thus initiate children into the act of thinking and reflecting. What starts as a fun-time activity, slowly transforms into an act of association and accommodation. If we were to spell it out, this is a gradual journey of exploration and association from the self to the world.
Stories therefore are to be seen as responsible for a much larger development than merely enhancing literacy skills. They are to be seen for their ability to develop better human beings.

Why Should Parents Engage in Story-time with Their Children?

Children develop strong connections with people who tell them stories. The story-tellers seem to enjoy a special bond with children. For it is they, who seem to engage with children beyond their routine care. More often than not it is our dadis and nanis who take up the baton. They animate, make-up stuff or tell folktales and hence become children’s go to people. Children are often seen asking for a retelling of a story. Sometimes it is because of the plot, or the character and sometimes it is because of the way the story has been told to them.
Telling a story to children at bed-time is one way. But reading aloud to children by showing them pictures, halting at a particular point and having a dialogue with them around a situation and/or character, helping them observe illustrations and make-meaning behind it, is a good way to introduce them to the world of written language. Very young children might not be able to read, so reading aloud to them, exposing them to language in its written and illustrative form may expand their language acquisition and thinking ability. This can make language learning less daunting for the child.

At last, using humour and sensitivity in story-telling widens up the scope for dialogue between children and characters as well as between children and parents as their story-tellers. It helps you to know your child more intimately- their worries, interests, curiosity, difficulties- all become more apparent without having to ask them directly, thus facilitating greater emotional engagement with your child.

How Should Stories Be Chosen?

Most parents are not naturally story-tellers. Some of them might not even have the skills or might find cooking-up a story quiet daunting. In that case it is good to rely on children’s literature that is available to us in our various languages.

Every age-group enjoys a certain kind of literature depending on their developmental age. For the very young, stories which have a plot that gets repeated or follows a pattern, are enjoyable. Stories that have a rhyme and beat inbuilt, are also a hit with them. Such children who are exposed to a rich variety of literature in the form of poems, songs, stories, and in different formats such as picture books, touch and feel books, flip books, audio books, wordless-picture books, bilingual books, quiet books, are already prepared to engage with language and literacy skills, even before entering pre-school or primary school.

But how does one choose literature from the great variety available in the market? There can be a criterion to look out for while choosing children’s literature:

The developmental age of the child: Publishers generally mention the age-group that a book caters to. Some even grade reading levels as early readers or fluent readers. It is a decent estimation of the concepts, their difficulty level and the language that may be comprehensible for particular age-groups.

Difficulty in language level: Language does not merely constitute the written word. A book interacts with a child through the fonts, illustrations, design, text-all of them combined together. Therefore, while choosing a book, please make sure that the language used is child-friendly, comprehensible, and pleasurable to read. The book should not be talking down to the child rather designed for interaction with the child.

Diversity and representation: Making sure that books that are chosen are inclusive, representative, celebrate diversity by bringing in cultural elements from different traditions, are free from gender bias, community-specific bias, rural-urban bias, are some of the ways to ensure your child’s exposure to an unprejudiced world.

Values that a book is trying to communicate: There are also stories that categorically differentiate the good from the bad. Such stories leave little scope for children to make their own judgements about right and wrong. While parents might be skeptical of a child’s ability to distinguish between right and wrong, exposing them to literature that preaches values, ends up indoctrinating children into dutiful and obedient beings; without having the child internalise those values. Such an act might have short-term benefits, but it won’t go long in the moral development of the child.

Child’s interest: A child’s interest is an important aspect to keep in mind while choosing literature for them. Listening to your children and paying attention to things, words, people that attract their attention, can help in guiding you to choose for them. For instance, a child interested in talking about the moon can be exposed to literature regarding moon as well as to the sun, birds, spaceships, astronauts and other things related to it. This is sure to attract his/her attention.

Finally, it is up to the parents to choose their time with the children. Making time for stories will go a long way in strengthening emotional ties between parents and their children as well as lead to the development of sensitive, caring and thoughtful human beings.

– Radhika Chaturvedi (Freelancer)

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