Why do small children need stories?
Stories are a source of information about the world. It is now known that reading aloud to babies and children is really important in their early years and has an impact on their overall development and future learning. Stories help children to cope with many feelings and problems. Storytime can be a special caring time. (Women’s and Children’s Health Network/Parenting and Child Health - http://www.cyh.com)
But stories are also important to educate the emotional intelligence. Storytelling can build emotional literacy. This process begins with listening to stories and can be developed as children gain the confidence to tell and create their own stories. (Telling Tales, Storytelling as Emotional Literacy, Taffy Thomas &Steve Killick)
Stories help children cope with feelings. When you read or tell a story which contains feelings, your child is helped to accept his feelings and to understand how others feel. He learns that he is not alone and that other children may feel the same as he does. This helps him to know that his feelings are okay. (Women’s and Children’s Health Network/Parenting and Child Health - http://www.cyh.com)
Reading and telling stories to children are good ways to create bonds. As young children learn through words, they are perfectly prepared to listen to stories. Besides the words and the events in the stories, children need just as much the emotional connection with those around them. They need the intonations of the human voice to experience different kinds of emotions. They need to see the masks of the face to understand the code of human emotions. They need the characters of the stories to understand the diversity of relationships among beings. They need pictures to travel with their imagination and soul. They need sensory experiences to get in touch with the world in the most direct way.
As Vivian Gussin Paley says, stories create an essential ritual of anchoring a day into a spiritual dimension. Paley says: "A day without storytelling is, for me, a disconnected day. The children at least have their play, but I cannot remember what is real to the children without their stories to anchor fantasy and purpose.”
We sometimes tend to forget that spirituality in our life begins with the simple questions we asked at an early age: what, why, how?
What stories are suited for small children?
For a while I thought that children of today no longer needed classical stories. I believed that fairy tales were old fashioned. In order to be sure and check this out, I created a special concept: a workshop dedicated to telling and acting out classical fairy tales on small, brave and beautiful characters, called The Magic Thimble. And it worked wonderfully. Children still need fairy tales, they really do, and now I am sure about it. Firstly though, we need to ask ourselves: ‘What do we want to tell children with a story or other’. For us this was clear, we wanted to build trust in themselves. We wanted to show them that small creatures can be not only beautiful but also brave and smart.
One more reason to tell stories is to get to know our children better. Stories stimulate them to express themselves, to show us what they like and what they don’t like. We changed the fairy tales in those parts where cruelty and violence were suggested, as such behaviour is no longer accepted in our society. At the end of The Frog Prince by the Brothers Grimm, I changed the part where the princess throws the frog on the wall. In our version, the frog simply begs the princess to kiss him, promising her that this will change the whole situation. The children were very much impressed by the kiss.
In our version of Hansel and Gretel the bad witch in the forest becomes a demanding and tough grandma, who teaches the two young children to be as tough as she is.
The new stories are as important as the old ones. The new stories speak about the themes which are important in the life of children: the need to be accepted by peers, the need to make friends, to speak openly and fearlessly, no matter who you are or how old you are. The Adventures of a Seed, a new Romanian story, speaks about the need of a young seed to make friends and know who she is (what kind of seed she is). Children adored the seed. Probably because the seed looks so similar to them and also keeps asking the triadic questions: who, why, how?
Sometimes we need to write stories ourselves if we don’t find what is suited to our approach to a subject, like healthy eating education. Healthy eating has become a very important issue today. Presenting the subject in a kitchen workshop the children were much more impressed by the story and the characters. “Is he real?”, they asked me, pointing to the puppet mouse in my hand. “Yes”, I replied. Yes, in that moment, in that context, everything was real, the mouse too. And I meant it.
The best way to tell stories to small children?
In my opinion, storytelling for small children, especially in group workshops, requires the use of puppets. Words aren’t enough, children need to see. Our puppet shows appear very similar to children’s social games using shelters, boxes and dolls houses.
This way it is easier to take the story to an unconventional venue, but most of all, this way also inspires children the most. It looks familiar to them, also the story is easy to replicate at home. We want to keep the storytelling and theatre show simple and easy. We want to encourage parents to tell stories at home, so we combine the idea, eg “This luggage bag looks like a garden house”, and we put real things inside - honey, ice cream, water, herbs, cakes - especially cakes and they should be real if possible, as sweet things are part of childhood. Sensory props captivate children.
Music and sounds are part of this whole experience. We also believe that ‘audio techniques can help children make sense of their worlds in a profound way’ (http://earlyarts.co.uk/using-old-technology-capture-childrens-stories/) and we encourage the use of sounds and music as much as possible.
A story reaches the children’s minds but also their souls. We noticed that imagination is stimulated by very realistic details. Characters need real names and do real things: eat, drink, have arguments, laugh, kiss. In our show the tailor in Grimm’s story eats plum jam, which inspires the children to do this too. And this is exactly the idea, to inspire children to do good things.
A story is half way between an imaginary world and the real one. Realistic details help the imagination take off.
After show play
We discovered that after the show, play is a necessity. It allows children to get in contact with the world of the story and enables them to express their own stories, to play, talk and release their emotions. This is a way for their emotional feedback. It is also very good for the parents and children to be together. Parents make important discoveries about the behaviour of their own child, his interests, his relation to others, how the child communicates.
Daniela Miscov is the Manager of Artelier D, Proiecte, a free art and education association whose mission is to bring stories to babies and children, on the basis of all Art languages: theatre, music, fine arts, visual arts. We are close to children in all ways and this closeness is the source of our inspiration.