From even before our children can talk, we tell them stories. We read books to them and make up our own tales. And as they grow up, we tell them family stories and regale them with stories from their own younger lives.
On their simplest level, stories are entertainment. More profoundly, they teach kids about the world and the people around them.
We tell stories and read to our kids because we know that it helps build language and thinking skills that set them up for success in school and in life. It can also create a love for stories and reading that will deliver joy for a lifetime.
But the power of stories on child development isn’t limited to just listening to them. A love for stories is the first step in the next stage of development – turning children into the storytellers. Telling their own stories transforms a child from a consumer to a creator, and develops higher level skills – thinking, talking, writing, organization. And it can be just plain fun. It doesn’t take much convincing to see the value of children telling stories. But there’s a rich landscape of research that shows the developmental benefits for children.
- Constructing stories, whether they’re told or written, requires a blending of thought and language. It helps develop verbal skills that translate into written skills. Stories also act as a catalyst for building vocabulary and learning to spell. It builds a fluency with the language that has far-ranging benefits.
- Children love to make up stories. Who hasn’t seen a child carry on a narration to no one in particular as he or she goes about playing. It seems almost a natural impulse for children to build stories around their actions. It’s a staple classroom activity of kindergarten and early elementary grades for children to draw pictures and then dictate a story to go along with it.
- Making up stories builds the imagination. In fictional stories, there are plots and characters that need to be manufactured. In true stories, there are storylines that need to be organized and people who need to be described. And as stories become more sophisticated, they build knowledge about diverse subject areas.
- Creating stories demands an understanding of story structure – a beginning, middle and end. Or more complexly – a character, a situation, a complication, a resolution, a conclusion. That understanding is a gateway to more sophisticated texts, whether as a reader or a writer.
- Stories create bonds among a family and builds community among peers. Shared stories are part of the connective fiber of any family or group. It’s a very human activity.
- Every culture everywhere and forever has been telling stories.
- For parents, listening to or reading a child’s story opens up a window on a young mind.
- Stories can give children an avenue to express emotions or address things that isn’t available in their day-to-day lives.
- For children who are reluctant readers, writing their own stories can ignite an interest in words and reading. If they write it, they can’t help but read it.
To encourage children to become storytellers and writers, experts have some recommendations. Foremost among them, make it fun and focus on the communication of ideas, not the mechanics of writing.
Writing in the Reading Horizons research journal, David Hayes from the University of Pittsburgh says to laugh and have a good time and children will, too. He recommends building confidence by moving slowly and celebrating small successes.
Children’s writer R.L. LaFevers says that in her classroom presentations she finds children like to write but that enthusiasm is dampened by the rules of writing. She, too, says to keep it playful. “You want them to get in touch with that intuitive part of themselves that recognizes that writing and creating can be play,” she writes in an essay on Wired.com. Learning the rules can come later.
LaFevers also recommends that parents and teachers give children the room to keep their writing private if they want to. It gives them the space to experiment and risk failure, she says.
Of course, it also helps if children see their parents write, whether it’s an email, a letter or a thank you note. Those bits of writing, often stories unto themselves, show children that writing and stories are an integral part of life.