Why Stories are So Important for Children
Updated: May 7
Children are natural storytellers, perhaps some of the best on the planet.
Before they learn how to write or effectively communicate, they are already making up stories, reenacting scenes from their favorite books, and creating elaborate worlds for their toys, friends, and imagined characters to inhabit. We see this all the time in the way children play.
When I was a kid, I used to beg my dad to let the grass grow a little longer every summer so I could hide my Jurassic Park dinosaurs in the lawn and recreate the raptor chase from The Lost World.
At Christmas, my mom would leave the Christmas tree up for an extra week so I could shoot rubber bands at my Stormtroopers hiding in the tree branches of the forrest moon of Endor.
Going all the way back to preschool, I would put on my Star Trek: The Next Generation captain's uniform and push our red wagon down the hill, pretending I was a bobsledder.
Sadly, I never did become a bobsledder, nor was I driven to pursue a career in paleontology as a result of watching Jurassic Park. I knew that Captain Picard was a fictional character and the Force wasn't real. I had good parents to teach me how to distinguish between fiction/fantasy and reality.
Fantasy we create; reality we do not.
And yet, the things we imagine, create, and dream up do have the power to influence how we perceive and react to the real world all around us.
Little did I know that my young adventures with Legos, velociraptors, and wagons would be the training camp for real life and my eventual career as a storyteller and writer.
At a young age we imagine, create, and pretend without anyone ever having to teach us or show us how. Sometimes, pretend is simply pretend. However, there are times when play and pretend helps us process and make sense of our world with all of its joys, disappointments, and uncertainties.
This is why the stories we expose our children to are so important and why we must be so careful what we expose them to.
I know many parents who don't want to shelter their children or become overprotective. I have news for them. That is their job.
Parents must protect their children from the evils of this world and defend their eyes and ears from dangerous ideas and bad influences. Parents must teach their children to guard their hearts and be bold enough to do so for them early on.
In fiction, children learn to model the attributes of fictional characters they learn about in their favorite books, movies, and stories, and so begin training for the person they will become.
Good role models, both on and off the page, are essential. This is where are children first encounter the values that will guide them for the rest of their lives.
We don't become literal Hobbits or superheroes by pretending to be them. But we do learn to develop their courage, honor, and strength and apply it.
Creative fiction, especially fantasy, is one of the most important tools a child has to form their own unique worldview.
We often reserve the title of Fantasy for stories dealing with magical realms, dragons, and superpowers, but Stanley Yelnats IV digging holes in the dessert (Holes) is as much a magical journey as James Henry Potter's adventures in the giant peach (James and the Giant Peach).
In each adventure, our hero discovers something about themselves and the world they left behind through their encounters with strange characters, other worlds, and unexpected challenges.
For example, in Neil Gaiman's modern fairy tale, Coraline, the author takes his main character on a journey through a magical door and into a world that mirrors her own. Rather than creating an entirely new world for Coraline to explore, Gaiman uses a "mirrored" version of the real world that Coraline, like many children, is eager to escape.
Her story begins in a humble flat in the rural countryside where she lives with her parents. We quickly realize, though, that this environment isn't suitable for a young explorer.
The house is cold and dreary. Coraline's parents spend all day in their studies, typing away on their computers, too preoccupied, too busy, and too distracted to notice Coraline or share in her adventures. Everything about Coraline’s world is like one of her dad’s “recipes”, disgusting and boring. She lives in a house she cannot call home, and like many children, she feels alone in her world. It's no surprise that her discovery of a door to another world is a welcome, though unexpected, invitation to change her circumstances.
Hogwarts. Terabithia. Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. The Giant Peach. Oz. These are all similar "other worlds" that offer characters an escape from a dreary, ordinary world with all its problems. But, as the saying goes, there's more to this world than meets the eye.
Upon entering her “other world”, Coraline is immediately greeted by her “other mother” and quickly discovers how much better this version of the world is to her own. Here, her “other parents” pay attention. Everything is colorful and warm, and here the food is delicious. In this world she can have whatever she wants.
The magic world, at first glance, highlights the undesirables of the world left behind. But as she Coraline begins to explore this new world, she discovers that this place is magical but also dangerous. It's fun but not very safe and definitely not better than the one she came from.
Coraline was once captivated by the “other world”, as most children would be, but now she is now captive to it.
"In the mirror Coraline’s mother and father stared at her. Her father opened his mouth and said something, but she could hear nothing at all. Her mother breathed inside of the mirrored glass, and quickly, before the fog faded, she wrote. HELP US with the tip of her forefinger. The fog on the inside of the mirror faded, and so did her parents, and now the mirror reflected only the corridor and Coraline."
Now Coraline understands that her real parents are not villains but rather victims of the “other mother’s” schemes, proving that even parents need rescuing sometimes.
In this momentary break from reality, Coraline realizes that she would much rather live with her imperfect parents in the real world than live with the soulless “other mother" in the other one.
“I don’t want whatever I want. Nobody does. Not really. What kind of fun would it be if I just got everything I ever wanted? Just like that, and it didn’t mean anything. What then?”
Coraline realizes that the real world will never be perfect. She won't get everything she wants. Her parents will never be everything she wants them to be. They will be too busy to participate in her adventures. They will continue making horrible dinners, but they will be her parents. They will love her, and that's all that matters.
In many ways, this is what s can help children discover in their own lives. perspective on how to make her life better, or at the very least, how to manage it when her life isn't so great.
In many ways, this is what a well told story can help children discover in their own lives.
The fantasy stories we are used to, whether fairy tales, mythical journeys, or an occasional run-in with a Jedi, Hobbit, or friendly neighborhood superhero, often involve some form of physical change.
The scrawny kid who goes into the super lab with the radioactive spiders is not the same one who emerges with a nasty bug bite and a new six pack to show for it. The Hobbit who leaves the Shire to destroy the One Ring is different than the Hobbit who returns a year later.
Likewise, the reader who picks up a book, the little girl who goes into the movie theater, and the boy playing with toy dinosaurs in the backyard are never quite the same when their story is over.
They will have discovered something about themselves during their time in the imagined world that can often influence how they inhabit and interact with others in the real one.
Their change may not be physical. It doesn't have to be.
A shy boy braving his first day at a new school or dealing with the emotions of his first crush may be just as new and uncomfortable as a kid trying to control his new superpowers or figuring out how he's going to save the world.
And our children deal with more change than anyone.
I don't think I'm going out on any limbs when I say that storytelling is essential to human development, whether in fiction or the creations of a child's imagination.
Stories provide a tool for self-examination and a laboratory for the development of worldview, personal goals, and life skills. They aren't just a break from reality, though sometimes that is healthy. They are one of the few environments where we are encouraged to process and practice life apart from the real consequences of a much more tangible and sometimes unforgiving world.
There's a reason why Coraline opens with the famous quote from GK Chesterton.
“Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist; but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten”.
The real world can be a dangerous and dreary place for children. A story may provide a temporary refuge, but it can also help the child and child at heart find hope and the means to face and defeat dragons, real and figurative, when the world is not safe.
So keep reading, keep writing, and keep playing. There are dragons to be slain and battles to be won, and the world needs new heroes more than ever.
Thank you for taking a few minutes out of your day to read this post. As always, if you enjoyed my perspectives, hit the heart icon below, share this post with a fellow storyteller or dreamer, or subscribe to this blog to help me keep writing and providing fresh perspective to the students, storytellers, and seekers of this world.
Until Today, Explorers!