In fact, most of our understanding of the world is a narrative, one way or another. The apple that falls from the tree teaches us about gravity. Legends, myths, the extraordinary story of origins – all of these stand at the very base of our humanity.
Poet and political activist Muriel Rukeyser used to say that “(…) the universe is made of stories, not of atoms”. Everyone loves a good story. Every child loves short bedtime stories and will get emotionally involved in the narrative. If the story also delivers a great moral or imparts knowledge, the child will perceive it as a cheerful endeavour; it’s like saying, “learning is fun, I enjoy it”.
You’ve probably observed that when it’s time for bedtime stories, the little one is usually adamant in hearing pretty much the same bedtime story, over and over again. After a few readings, your child will be able to rightfully predict what happens in the story and take great pride in that.
This is how children train their brain and enhance their memory. Hearing the same story time after time will let the brain reap its inbred rewards. Even as adults, whenever we make a prediction that turns out to be correct, we get a dose of dopamine, that feel-good, satisfactory feeling.
This dopamine-reward reaction is much more acute in children, and it is normal, a blessing even.
When they hear the same story again, their brain reacts, making the effort of remembering all the facts and action, and at the same time, inducing that feel-good, feel-proud emotion.
The narratives you tell your children determine certain emotional connections in the brain crucial for learning and remembering. More than that, the warm intimacy of the storytelling ritual and the easy-to-get narrative patterns become potent memory-holding models.
Bedtime stories for kids offer a lovely experience that the child will always seek throughout life. It is that much-needed moment of calm and snuggles where they feel cared for and secure. This positive emotional state usually reappears every time one hears a narrative throughout one’s life.
Delivering information through a story has better effects on a child’s information retention capacity.
Our brain stores information based on specific patterns. We interpret the world through certain paradigms and connections.
Short stories for children are patterns in themselves. They have a very specific structure that a child learns to process from a very young age. Narrative theorists call it the dramatic arc:
When information is presented narratively, a child’s brain can recognise and pick it up quickly. This is why every algebra problem in pre-school and primary school is a story.
“Maria has 10 apples. She gives John 5. How many apples does Maria have now?”
…or something more complex like:
“Sarah helps her parents to do chores all week, and on Saturday, she gets rewarded for it. Her parents gave her a choice. She either takes £100 now or just 1 penny on day one, 2 pence on day 2, 4 pence on day 3, 8 pence on day 4 and so on over a month. Maria chose to get the whole £100 straight away. What would you choose?”
Now, children are faced with a problem, and they need to resort to serious calculations. If they get those rights, they will see that Maria made the seemingly less profitable decision by taking the £100 right upfront.
Weaving information into stories for kids makes it all the more exciting and follows a pattern that children are accustomed to from their bedtime stories.
Most stories for kids teach a certain kind of desirable behaviour. Children will walk away with a lesson that will help strengthen their character. They will learn about the importance of sharing with others, about compassion, what vanity and envy can do to people, and how to forgive.
They will quickly identify with their favourite characters and live the challenges they go through, only to come up strong in the end.
Most of the time, “the right thing” is the unbeaten path, the scary cave where dangers await. However, the hero will find the strength to overcome the many perils in front and decide to take the unbeaten path.
Hearing about a mighty hero’s emotions and doubts can help children understand and accept their feelings. They will see that what they feel is normal and should not be afraid to express their sentiments.
You will also have the chance to observe the little ones while you’re storytelling. Pay attention to how they react to the hero feeling sad or afraid; you could also pause the storytelling for a few moments and ask them how they might have acted.
In addition to all these, we should also think about the storytelling techniques in itself that asks for children’s utmost attention and concentration. The pure joy they get from that helps them associate listening and focus with happiness and delight.
Moreover, instilling a love for stories in your little ones will motivate them to pick up the book and learn to read themselves. This way, they can be sure to follow the adventures of their favorite character without having to ask you all the time to read it to them.
There is an increasing focus on technology nowadays, both at home and at school. It’s not necessarily bad; however, we seem to lose something in this process. Storytelling for kids is an authentic experience and a skill that brings us a different kind of connection.
A 1990 research on Macaque monkeys revealed that we interpret and predict the actions of others, not through cognition but through what is called mirror neurons. Further research shows that spoken language, which targets certain senses, will stir up the neurons corresponding to those senses in the brain.
Probably that’s why when you read aloud, “John started to scrape down the blackboard with his long nails”, you almost flinch from that sensation.
Stories are alive. They creep up on us and stay with us for long periods. They help us make sense of the world out there and the people we interact with.
Various analysis shows that more than half of the Hollywood movies are based on the “hero’s journey” type of story, not to mention all the books of fiction or non-fiction, even most TED Talks out there are all based on a narrative.
All these speak a simple truth – our brain loves stories. Stories hold an emotional component that helps the brain memorise information much easier than a table of facts.
So, what makes bedtime stories what they are?
Let’s not forget that our attention spans are limited because they cost a lot of metabolical energy. That is why we seem to have difficulties focusing on only one thing for long periods. It’s evolution.
However, stories weave into our emotions until we intuitively put ourselves in the hero’s shoes and understand that we might have to face the same challenges. This is where we begin to be hooked, our heart and breath speed up, our stress hormones are released, and we are burning to find out what happens next.
Narratologists call this phase “transportation”. We perceive the hero’s emotions as our own. Here we arrive at empathy – a powerful “feature” that enables us to understand the people around us, know when our mother is angry, or if someone is a friend or foe.
It is a neural mechanism that keeps us safe and helps us form relationships. It begins to develop in the early years of our life.
All the stories we tell or never tell our children will eventually have a crucial impact on their understanding of culture and social roles.
These stories convey pivotal values, beliefs, attitudes, and social norms that will later construct our children’s perception of reality.
Children do learn a lot about how to behave in the world through the characters they meet in kids’ stories. If you tell a boy about Darth Vader, Iron Man, and space adventures, he would want to be that. If you tell a girl about pink princesses and castles, she’ll root for that.
A famous literature scholar, Louise Rosenblatt, argued that we understand and construct our behaviour through our favourite characters. It seems children learn to develop a whole social perspective from the very stories they are told.
Bedtime stories help children foster divergent thinking – the thought process used to generate ideas by exploring all the possibilities.
Studies show that children can recognise specific patterns in the world even before they can utter them. They see before they speak and understand before they can express their understanding.
Interesting research by Vivian Vasquez demonstrates that children can subsequently play out the bedtime stories they hear and put themselves in the characters’ shoes.
Vasques describes how Hannah, a four-year-old, is told the story of Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer.
She then starts to draw herself into the story of Rudolph. She adds a person with an X above the reindeer, and Vasques explains that just as Rudolph, Hannah has dealt with bullying in the class and did not like hearing about Rudolph being called names and bullied by his folk.
She doesn’t want Rudolph to be bullied because she has also gone through the same experiences and can soundly identify her feelings with Rudolph’s.
Moreover, not only the written and spoken word can hold sway over children’s imagination. It is also in the pictures they see that children begin to internalise certain perspectives of their world. Pictures and drawings are other powerful types of storytelling for kids.
To conclude, the power of storytelling has been with us since the beginning of language really, and it is still one of the essential tools we use to make sense of the world around us.
From a very young age, we use stories to understand simple concepts, emotions and discover ourselves.
Reading bedtime stories to babies and small children supports brain development and imagination, helps develop language, understand and express emotions and build empathy.
In the first years, children enjoy stories with rhymes or songs; they love to hear a tale dozens of times or more as they exercise their early memorisation skills.
More than this, children love being told bedtime stories as they usually identify these moments with a time of calm, snuggle and warm cosiness.
However, we should never forget that the type of bedtime stories we tell our children could significantly impact on how they perceive the world and shape the very fabric of our society later on.