This week is National Storytelling Week, and a chance to celebrate the powerful role that stories have in our lives. Knowing this week has been coming up, I have been thinking about the stories I have loved, and this reminded me of a favourite quote of mine. Neil Gaiman wrote, “Stories, like people and butterflies and songbirds’ eggs and human hearts and dreams, are also fragile things, made up of nothing stronger or more lasting than twenty-six letters and a handful of punctuation marks. Or they are words on the air, composed of sounds and ideas –abstract, invisible, gone once they’ve been spoken and what could be more frail than that? But some stories, small, simple ones about setting out on adventures or people doing wonders, tales of miracles and monsters, have outlasted all the people who told them, and some of them have outlasted the lands in which they were created.”
I love this quote, because it captures how stories are both incredibly simple and exceptionally important. Stories come in all shapes and sizes, they can be spoken or written, they can be fanciful or factual, and they can elicit the full range of emotions from fear and sadness to excitement and joy. And yet they are great equalisers too, as we all have our own stories and we all have the power to tell them. We carry them around with us all the time, and share them with each other over tea or in emails. They offer an opportunity to relive the realities of our everyday lives, or to escape into places and worlds we have never known ourselves.
This element of experiencing exciting new things is what I remember from the stories of my childhood. Stories brought me face to face with a hungry caterpillar, eating all sorts of weird and wonderful foods and experiencing the most incredible change into a butterfly. I learned how to catch dreams with the Big Friendly Giant, and found joy in the friendships between Winnie the Pooh and the inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood. In childhood, stories and books provide children with an opportunity to stretch their imaginations and experience things they wouldn’t get to in real life. This is more than just fun, this is the stuff of serious learning and what children really need as they grow up.
There is now a large amount of research focusing on the importance of reading and stories for children’s language and learning. We know that children who have more books in their home tend to know more words and understand more about the world. When parents point, ask questions, and engage children with what they are reading, this helps children to develop a more complete understanding of words and supports their ability to think creatively. Stories can also help children to think through and understand situations, making them more empathetic and better able to work out what to do in complex social situations in their own life. Beyond just learning from hearing, stories can fuel children’s imagination and their ideas for games they can act out and play themselves. In this way, they are not only learning about what things mean, they are learning how to tell stories themselves, and becoming better communicators and more inspired thinkers in the process.
However, families may not always find it that easy to share books and stories together. Parents may not like reading themselves, or may not remember reading as a fun part of their own childhood, and the prospect of sitting down around a book may just not be that enticing. For some families, reading together may simply not be a priority. And in the busy day-to-day lives of young families, carving out the space and time to read together may just not happen when there is so much else going on. However, ongoing research suggests that parents’ own enjoyment of reading with their child is a key motivator for shared reading, and there is great joy to be had in finding ways of reading that suit each unique family. There are no hard and fast rules on how to read with a child, and there is a need for parents to feel encouraged and supported in sharing books with their children in a way that works for them.
The understanding of the power of stories and the desire to support parents in reading with their child was behind the creation of the Better Start Imagine project, which is now being rolled out in the Better Start areas. Children born after the 1st of January 2016 and living in Bradford’s districts of Bowling & Barkerend, Bradford Moor, and Little Horton are all eligible to sign up to receive a free book through the door every month until their 4th birthday. The books are different every month, and change to be suitable and enjoyable for children as they grown up. There will also be a range of events based around these books that families can attend, to help both parents and children get the most out of reading together. To find out more about Better Start Imagine, please see the Better Start Bradford website (https://betterstartbradford.org.uk/families-get-involved/our-projects/better-start-imagine/).
As all these books travel through the post and bring new adventurers into the homes of families across the Better Start area, it is worth noting that there are numerous opportunities to enjoy stories beyond the paper pages of books. National Storytelling Week celebrates stories in all forms, whether they are spoken in plays, sung in films, read from books, or simply told to a friend. So if you fancy celebrating this week in honour of stories, have a think back to all the stories you have loved in the past and see if you can find some new ones to share with the adults and children in your life now.
Dea Nielsen– Research Fellow Better Start Bradford Innovation Hub