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Using Story to Teach Life Skills
Stories are powerful tools to stimulate the imagination of children, to help them believe that anything is possible and to reveal to them that they have wonderful internal resources at their fingertips. Stories can guide them as they journey through the ups and downs of living.
Think back to childhood stories that captured your imagination. For me it was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Anne of Green Gables, to name just two. Do you recall certain stories having the magical power to transport you away into a different world? This experience is very important for children who live in a fast-paced, information driven age.
It has been shown that great stories release different brain chemicals at different parts of the narrative. As the story is introduced, brain chemicals are not affected, but as the action rises, cortisol is released which shows that the brain and imagination is being stimulated. At the climax of the story or the turning point, when things seem to be resolved but there is still the possibility of new mysteries unfolding, the hormone oxytocin is released. This is the social bonding hormone that helps the reader or listener identify with the characters in the story, by developing empathy for them. As the story resolves and comes to an end, and during humorous parts of a tale, dopamine is released. This chemical is part of the brain's reward system. It is a feel-good neurotransmitter that contributes to feelings of satisfaction and pleasure. All in all, reading or listening to compelling story is a healthy and enjoyable experience for children with the bonus of developing empathy and language proficiency. When children are read to by a caregiver or loved one, further social bonding takes place as their needs for closeness, care and belonging are being met.
Clarissa Pinkola Estés, a famous psychoanalyst, storyteller and author describes story as a "gift so simple that it requires no ribbon for wrapping, yet which is so miraculous." Stories are known to sustain us in difficult times when they pay tribute to the inspiring power of the human spirit. Through story we can see the power of love, mercy, generosity and strength in the world. Andrew Peau who wrote Write Better: A Lifelong Editor on Craft, Art and Spirituality, explains how stories bypass the rational mind in a constructive way because they engage the heart and the emotions, and therein lies their power. This is why we will remember a story long after any other kind of information enters our consciousness.
Stories offer multi-dimensional understanding. They shape how children think, what they believe, how they interact with the world and how they determine what is and isn't important. "Canned" or very predictable stories that spell out their meanings may serve in a limited way as moral instruction, but stories that contain the dramatic, the funny and the unexpected make the greatest impression. True stories that detail real life experience and tales that hold the listener or reader in suspense are especially applicable and meaningful (Peau, 2019).
As parents and teachers, we can harness this powerful gift by making note of our experiences and re-telling them to children. We can create a collection of stories over time that have impact and serve them up at appropriate moments.
Here are some examples of wonderful tales to share with children aged two to twelve years.
- Fables such as The Lion and the Mouse which shows the value of being helpful; The Hare and the Tortoise that teaches children the benefits of perseverance and pacing oneself; The Golden Goose which reflects the dangers of greed and The Boy Who Cried Wolf that demonstrates the importance of honesty.
- Inspirational stories such as The Diary of Anne Frank show children how traumatising war can be and the importance of striving for peace. I Am Malala, the story of one woman who fought for the right to education for women in Pakistan, illustrates the power of standing up for one's beliefs.
- Adventure stories with strong characters help children to focus and act in their own behalf. Examples are the Harry Potter Series where Harry struggles against Lord Voldemort and Tintin, a young Belgian reporter who undertakes many journeys with his dog, Snowy.
- Fairy tales evoke fantasy worlds with infinite possibilities and many characters, such as Cinderella, Snow White and Little Red Riding Hood
Storytelling is both a science and an art. For more ideas on how to bring stories alive for children, watch this excellent video by Vidya Raju, a psychologist and learning specialist on The Art of Storytelling.
Estés, C. (2020). Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés - The Gift of Story: A Wise Tale About What Is Enough. Retrieved 7 February 2020, from http://www.clarissapinkolaestes.com/the_gift_of_story__a_wise_tale_about_what_is_
Peau, A. (2019). Write Better: A Lifelong Editor on Craft, Art and Spirituality. Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press.
Ramakrishnan, M. (2020). 40 Fantastic Stories For Kids To Read In 2018. Retrieved 7 February 2020, from https://flintobox.com/blog/child-development/fantastic-stories-for-kids
Weinschenk, S. (2016). Great Stories Release Brain Chemicals. Retrieved 7 February 2020, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/brain-wise/201605/great-stories-release-brain-chemicals
Thanks to Annie Spratt for sharing her work on Unsplash.