Researcher Dr. Michael Cohen relates that in the process of personalizing stories, kids find hooks in any medium or tale to identify with, thereby making even the oldest-tech entertainment (storytelling) interactive…
his year, during my family’s ritual summer holiday in Cape Cod, my six-year-old daughter Laura reconnected with her summer friends and made some new ones-three kids her own age who were also vacationing with their families. Over a two-day period, an interesting chain of events occurred and I couldn’t help but take note.
Due to a series of unplanned circumstances, within a 48-hour period, I found myself and the four six-year-olds at a drive-in movie, the local library, reading in our living room, at a sunset campfire on the beach and in front of the VCR. Recounting my adventure to my wife at the end of the two days, I realized that one thing connected all of these activities: story. Whether it was a high-tech, animated Disney film or a simple (and scary!) campfire tale, the kids were constantly surrounded and completely engaged by narrative. And one thing was certain. It did not matter what the medium was-all the excitement was about the story.
Day one was rainy, so the kids watched The Little Mermaid on video. Although they had seen the film a dozen times, afterwards, each one quickly identified with certain characters and began to act out scenes from the movie. One little girl, Alexei, spoke enthusiastically about Ariel, but then lamented how ‘Ariel must miss her mom and dad when she doesn’t have a tail and walks on land.’ My daughter reminded her that her mom and dad would always love her no matter what, to which Alexei replied philosophically: ‘Good point.’
Next, we went to the local library, where the kids found Mirette and the High Wire books and took turns reading to each other. They were incredibly animated and expressive, identifying with both Mirette and Bellini. They did not want to stop when the hour was over. So when we headed home, the activity progressed into a full-blown theater production with homemade costumes and sets. After much pleading, I insanely agreed to a slumber party.
The next morning, the sun was up so we spent the day at the beach. The kids set up a tea party and invited only certain guests. ‘We don’t want everyone on the beach to come,’ said Laura. ‘We want only mermaids.’ They tied their ankles together with seaweed and thrashed around on the shore.
At the end of the day, we built a campfire and I told my scariest story, one from my own childhood. The kids were visibly frightened but thrilled at the idea of a haunted house. ‘It reminds me of Goosebumps,’ most agreed. They asked endless questions about ghosts, skeletons and who was tucking them in that night.
After the campfire, we went home, and Laura, too excited to sleep, asked to put on, what else, The Little Mermaid. ‘Thanks,’ she said. ‘I wanted to watch this again.’
As I remember these two days in Cape Cod, I think about how each child connected to the various stories and how they projected themselves into the narrative. Whether they identified with Ariel, Mirette, Bellini the Tightrope Walker or one of a group of children hunting for ghosts, they had fully entered into the adventure. Storytelling has always been an important way to pass along cultural values and to create social bonds. Human history is characterized by the use of story to communicate ideas to children and to help them make sense of their experience.
We now know that narrative is critical for children to develop expressive freedom and creativity, to construct a sense of self and appropriate social behaviors. Recovery from traumatic experiences is characterized by the telling and creation of the ‘trauma story.’
Children are curious and stories answer their questions. Cape Cod reminded me that narrative is not an individual experience. Narrative is the way we connect to the world. It expands our experience so that we actually are the little mermaids, the tightrope walkers and prisoners in haunted houses. The creation of personal narrative gives meaning and context to the adventure of our own lives.
The lesson that I take from the experience is that no matter how wide-eyed we get about new, sophisticated or fancy media, it all comes down to the simple story.
Dr. Michael Cohen is a developmental psychologist and founding member of A.R.C. Consulting, where he conducts international research on issues such as children’s media, education, international organization and public policy.
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