“Stories are a communal currency of humanity.”
—Tahir Shah, In Arabian Nights
From the earliest times, humans have endeavoured to explain what they see around them using innovative and fanciful ideas, delicately blending reality with the mysterious. Creation stories and myths abound in cultural and ethnic groups around the world, many of which are kept alive and passed down via oral storytelling tradition. It is not inconceivable that cavemen and cavewomen gathered around a cave-fire to pass on their interpretation of the colourful rainbow they beheld in the sky.
Why is storytelling important?
“Grandma, tell me a story, please?” is not only a sweet invitation for intergenerational bonding, but also a powerful channel for communicating cultural traditions, values and beliefs. Oral storytelling establishes a strong connection between the teller and the listener. In addition to the physical proximity of the storyteller and the audience, there is an unwritten contract that promises not just to entertain, but to educate and inspire as well.
Benefits of oral storytelling
Feeding children pre-packaged nuggets about their culture, history and customs, especially in formal settings like classrooms, or via passive media like television, leaves out the intimacy and personal connection that storytelling offers.
Through stories, children identify the commonality and differences in humans around the world
Here are some tangible benefits of storytelling, the good old way:
Hone communication and language skills
Children are born sponges, ready to absorb information and expand their minds. Children recognise the rhythms and tones of a storyteller’s words, even if they don’t have an extensive lexicon yet to understand the nuances of the language. Through the context of the story, they are able to infer the meaning of the words, thereby increasing their vocabulary in a relevant and lasting way. This allows them to get comfortable with oral communication, which is the first step towards telling their own stories in an effective way.
Feed creativity and imagination
Children create mental images of the story’s characters and events and this allows them to respond with a giggle or a gasp, a smile or a frown, as the story evolves. By hearing the words, children manage to enter another world willingly; a world that only their minds can create. Their capacity for visualising a movie in their minds is an essential tool for honing reading skills.
Explore various cultures and instil values
Through stories, children identify the commonality and differences in humans around the world. Stories set in different places can bring in the flavours of food, language and even clothes and customs of that region that allows children to consider and accept new ideas. Even before they know words like benevolence, bravery, beauty, envy, malice or trickery they inherently perceive these qualities and make an assessment of what appeals to them and what is acceptable in their society.
Deal with emotional issues
Death, violence and abuse are unfortunate realities of our world. Through well-chosen stories, we can help children understand and cope with such events and possibly make the endings hopeful and transformative. This kind of storytelling can even be therapeutic.
Take a favourite old story and re-interpret it—add a twist to the ending or narrate it from a different perspective
Here's how to tell stories
Now that we are charged up to revive storytelling, how can we go about it in everyday life?
When I was little...
Children can’t resist stories about their parents, particularly parents’ childhood, and especially incidents where parents appear naughty or silly. When you share your own childhood fears, failures and adventures through stories, kids can feel safe to explore their own insecurities, worries, and joys.
When you were little...
Thanks to the digital age, there is no dearth of photos and videos of your children. Look at baby videos together and watch it un-reel a series of comic episodes filled with story opportunities. Why am I giggling so much in the video, Ma? Why did I jump on the big pile of leaves, Papa? Your answers to such simple queries will help children see themselves through your eyes and know what you think is special. And, you will also see life as a precious story unfolding each day with new promise.
You are my superhero...
When real-life stories seem tame, why not create a superhero out of your child? Ask them what their super powers are [they know!] and weave a story around them. Bring in their school experiences and hobbies and friends. Put them in a situation where they get to decide which path the story takes and revel in their values and motivations.
The “true” story of...
We all have read the Panchatantra tales and Aesop’s Fables, but do we know the “true” story of The Blue Jackal or The Tortoise and the Hare? Take a favourite old story and re-interpret it—add a twist to the ending or narrate it from a different perspective. Maybe even mash-up two popular stories to liven things up. The values you bundle into these stories will serve as a compass for children to assess their own.
Where we come from…
Tell your kids some anecdotes about your ancestral village or home if any—where their great-grandparents came from and what they did for a living. If you have a family heirloom, share the story of how it came into the family. If there is no such heirloom available, share a story about an object that was special to the family in the past. Even everyday objects from the previous generation have their own stories to tell—some funny, some quirky, and some even heart-warming.
Folk tales, fairy tales and mythology…
In all the novelty, don’t forget the time-tested folk tales and fairy tales and stories from mythology that are at risk of extinction. Keep them alive by kindling an interest in trickster tales, pourquoi tales and the rich mythological stories of your cultural roots.
Savour children’s books…
Last but not the least, there is a wide selection of well-written, well-illustrated children’s books for those of us who feel inhibited by our lack of storytelling abilities. The familiarity of reading the same story and poring over the amazing pictures can be a soothing bedtime ritual on days that we run out of steam and want to just shut down. Plus, there are so many books out there today that children can’t possibly read them all in one childhood. As they say, there is a book for every reader, and a reader for every book. Find out what excites your child and bring those books home to nurture the habit of reading.
As the words drape the children—words that enchant, instruct, pack wisdom and promise—there is a definite stirring of their imagination and intellect. While grandma weaves stories in the air and into their minds, children gain self-worth and understanding that is ambitious to duplicate in any other setting.
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