The COVID-19 pandemic has created enormous challenges for families all over the world. Among those who have been most affected are young children, many of whom have far fewer opportunities to interact with peers and others outside the home now than they did before the pandemic. Between the ages of 1 and 5, these interactions are vital for a child’s development and well-being.

Through social interaction, children learn to recognise and co-produce talk, and to build a reflexive understanding about others. At home and in preschools, where children learn to play with language, storytelling helps them develop a sense of their own identity, which is essential for healthy growth.

The sharing of personal as well as vicariously experienced events is an essential component of childhood interaction. Children’s ability to talk about the events in their lives, which is what conversational storytelling is all about, is a particularly important competence. The knowledge and skills children gain through storytelling are linked to the development of strong connections, confidence and the ability to communicate ideas. All of these factors promote language acquisition and the development of interactional skills, such as taking turns and displaying knowledge. Storytelling helps children connect with other people, which is essential if they are to understand their own feelings, and those of others, as well as to develop resilience. These are foundational skills for a successful transition to school and into adulthood.

“Ensuring that children have time and space to share their stories is particularly critical in the current context.”

The importance of storytelling in our current climate

Ensuring that children have time and space to share their stories is particularly critical in the current context, at a time when the disruption of normal routines and the anxiety of adults have caused children, too, to become anxious. The World Health Organization (2020) reports that globally, between 10-20% of children suffer from mental disorders. Research has shown that conversational storytelling, in which upsetting or traumatic events are shared in everyday talk, plays an important role in children’s mental health and well-being. Making time and space available to young children for sharing their stories about current events provides an opportunity for healing.

Worldwide, there are many scales for assessing children’s healthy development. In Australia, for example, the Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) identifies five important areas of development:  physical health and well-being, social competence, emotional maturity, language and cognitive skills, communication skills and general knowledge. Alarmingly, one in five children in Australia is rated as developmentally at-risk in one or more of these domains, and these numbers are likely to increase exponentially as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

“Encouraging children to develop their storytelling abilities can foster resilience and create lasting change, even beyond COVID-19.”

Of greatest concern, given families’ unequal access to vital learning resources and technology, is that children who are already disadvantaged will fall even further behind.  Regular storytelling within the family, even in short bursts, can be helpful in this context. It can make children feel less isolated and enable them to build connections with extended family members, as they are encouraged to notice and articulate their feelings about events and talk about themselves.

A recent OECD report underscores the importance of building resilient societies. Encouraging children to develop their storytelling abilities can foster resilience and create lasting change, even beyond COVID-19 – changing how we connect with young children and how they perceive themselves, and enabling them to become confident and effective citizens.

The following practical storytelling strategies could be used by parents at home to foster their children’s language skills and development:

  • Create a story routine that allows you and your child to share stories about what has happened during the day. This might involve establishing a special time and/or place where you can talk openly about events that are taking place. As a parent, you can take the lead by bringing up something that is going on in the world and sharing your feelings about it, then giving your child a chance to respond. Grandparents and extended family members can also participate, through digital devices, creating rich opportunities for story sharing.
  • Encourage children to take photos or draw pictures and create a book of story memories. These stories can be told digitally, perhaps with the help of an iPad app, or using paper, old greeting cards or other materials.
  • Create a ‘talking box’. This can be a great way to start a conversation as you take turns choosing special items to hide inside the box and then use them to spark a story.
  • Share stories in another language to foster, practise and expand the child’s bilingual, social and academic language skills.
  • Take a ‘story walk’ around the house, garden or neighbourhood, and co-create a story from the perspective of a pet or neighbour.
  • Find items from the child’s younger years and share a story related to them.
  • Make a ‘travel story’ focusing on some of the places your family might like to visit when travel is possible again.
  • Find a long-term project for your child, something that can be shared through storytelling. This is a fun way to encourage ongoing language development. Sharing stories with buddies or family friends who speak different languages is especially important for bilingual children.
  • ‘Scaffold’ storytelling skills by using prompting questions to encourage your child to expand on a story’s characters, activities and events.

Keep up to date with the BOLD newsletter