Sharing stories is an activity as old as humankind. Indigenous peoples throughout the world have used storytelling to pass information from one generation to the next. Ancient drawings on the walls of caves show groups sitting around campfires listening to a storyteller. Tribal and family stories, legends and tales of ancestors’ explorations have all been shared through stories.
Sharing stories with young children supports their development in a number of ways. Memory, language development and imagination are strengthened, as well as their sense of self and belonging, when family stories are shared with them.
Exploring stories can help children begin to understand the difference between real life and make believe. For some children with active imaginations, it’s important to monitor their reactions to stories. Some will love to hear the ‘scary voice’ of one of the characters while others who get frightened more easily may not enjoy it as much. It’s important to go very gently and make sure story time remains an enjoyable time.
Stories involving ‘monsters’ may result in night-time fears or upsets. Rhymes, on the other hand, in books or shared orally, are very appealing to toddlers. Combining rhymes with actions is very popular with this stage.
Some stories are designed specifically to help children cope with certain situations. These include stories about going to the doctor’s or to the hospital, or talking about toilet training. It can be a good way to introduce some sensitive topics through an enjoyable activity. Topics tailored to the child, their family and their particular situation can be woven into stories especially personalised for them.
Whānau can help a child explore scary stuff or strong emotions with stories and books. Children living in a shared custody situation may enjoy stories about both their parents, their homes and their families. These stories may make the transitioning from one parent to the other easier.
Stories about absent parents or grandparents help a child maintain a sense of contact with them. New technology like Skype and FaceTime not only lets them see those important people, they can also share a story right there on the screen with them.
Toddlers may insist on the same story over and over. This is not unusual. Children at this age like predictability and thrive on repetition, especially if the world around them is chaotic. Asking for the same story or book can give them a sense of control in a world where they have no power to influence outcomes.
It’s very normal for a child’s favourite stories to be about them and their lives — for example, the night I was born, the day uncle came on the train, the day my baby sister was born. Those familiar stories told and enjoyed over and over again can be turned into homemade books too. With the addition of some photos, these personalised stories become well used and loved books.
Reading and storytelling time can happen anytime and anywhere, including in the car, on the bus, in the bath, or while cooking the dinner.
Children will commonly ‘do’ as their parents and whānau ‘do’. So it’s important that they also see other whānau members enjoying books and stories. Joining the local library is a good way to ensure easy access to books and stories. Some parents may feel unsure about reading because of their own struggles with literacy. Encouraging them to use storytelling or just to talk about the pictures in books and magazines might address some of their worries.
Some parents have been motivated to learn to read through their child’s developing interest in books and stories.