In the midst of our current digital and Zoom-laden existence, it is helpful to remind ourselves of the power of stories for children’s development, particularly when shared personally and passionately. Human beings have a marvellous ability to imagine things we haven’t seen or can’t see, an ability which stories ignite and which is at the heart of education.
As Israeli philosopher Yuval Harari explains, humans can “talk about entire kinds of entities that have never seen, touched or smelled” and, as many parents and teachers know, while we might be restricted to the here and now, stories and our imaginations allow us to explore the reaches of time and space from the comfort of our classrooms or homes.
From biblical narratives and rabbinic midrashim to folk stories and illustrated books, Jews have always understood the power of tales to explain, explore and excite the imagination. In my experience children, teenagers, parents and grandparents all love a good tale; however telling stories to children is also essential to help them make sense of the world.
Whether silly or serious, symbolic or specific, stories help us understand our feelings and the events taking place around us, especially in times of crisis. The world is often a confusing place: an ever-changing maelstrom of ideas, places and people from which we need to create order.
By contrast, folk tales, fables and stories are mini-packages of existence which allow us to dive deeply into a small slice of reality. In this way stories act as a lens, focusing on a particular element of existence and allowing us to appreciate it in greater depth.
It might not seem that telling a tale is an educational process, but great stories are seeds, that with nurture can germinate and blossom in the minds of children. Through talking about stories we have heard, thinking about why the characters act in the ways they do, by imagining what it would feel like to be in the situation, or discussing the conclusion, children can develop important skills which empower them to create strong communities.
Harari argues that “fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively”: shared narratives enable us to work together, to overcome individual needs to work for a greater good.
Our current experiences, framed through the real-life stories of individuals such as Captain Tom, are a testament to the way that narratives, real as well as fictional, can encourage us to individually act with constraint, in order to help ensure a healthy outcome for those around us, and for the millions in our country who we will never know. The real-life stories we are hearing each day and the fictional stories we know, are helping us to make sense of this crisis.
Enriching children’s experiences through sharing a range of stories, including stories from Jewish tradition, gives them a gift which will help them to comprehend the world and make the everyday exciting. Fortunately, we don’t need special training to tell a story. Most children are prepared to be an appreciative audience, ready to spot patterns in a tale, predict outcomes and participate in the journey, particularly if the story teller adds in a sound effect, a silly voice or the odd invented, personal detail.
So please, whether they are two or 10, whether it is a story that is remembered, read out, or invented in the moment, and whether you are speaking to them at bedtime or connecting digitally, take time to tell them a tale.
Marc Shoffren is headteacher of Alma Primary School