The importance of storytelling

How reading to refugee children can foster their development and recovery
Sara Awad
Sara Awad

Every humanitarian aid organization focuses on basic needs, such as food, health, hygiene and education. Yet people affected by trauma and displacement often become isolated, depressed and withdrawn from society.

Social behavior – and in consequence, interacting in social settings – is essential to human development particularly in early childhood. Research has shown that the period from birth up until the age of 5 is a time when an extraordinary number of synapses are being formed in the cortex. Some of these neuronal connections are responsible for social behavior. The richer and more complex these connections are, the more positive an individual’s social behavior will be. And it is human social interactions within communities and families that allow these connections to develop.

In a humanitarian crisis, such as war and natural disasters, social interactions become less frequent or are absent entirely. For children, this means that the development of neurons relating to social parts of the brain becomes stunted. Children turn inward and may even become violent.

Yet, very few programs focus on fostering social communication in a refugee context, because this is considered a luxury, not a basic need.  As a result, children lose out on an essential component of human development. The question is how, in a humanitarian-aid setting, to foster and develop that component in a cost-efficient way.

One way is for adults to read aloud to children. We Love Reading (WLR) is a program that fosters love of reading among refugee children in Jordan. WLR focuses on early childhood and thus aims to support child development in one of the most important phases. Reading to young children (even as early as in utero) helps to build and maintain synapses, making the brain stronger and healthier. This has a favorable effect not only on cognition and mental capacity, but also on social skills, and likely leads to a more well-balanced personality.

“Reading to young children helps to build and maintain synapses, making the brain stronger and healthier. This has a favorable effect not only on cognition and mental capacity, but also on social skills.”

Being read to in a group setting also promotes interaction. As children carry this experience back with them to their tents, they trigger more social interactions within their families. Parents, too, can participate in these story-telling sessions by observing and learning how to read aloud to their children at home.

Social skill development is of especially great importance in humanitarian crises. Under such adverse conditions, children’s brain development is affected by trauma and, likely is staunched by insufficient interactions with caregivers and lacking formal education.

The WLR program trains adults, called WLR ambassadors, to read to children in public settings. The children benefiting from this program are also allowed to take books home. Accordingly, they can ask their parents to read to them or even try to read to themselves and their siblings or friends. The primary goal of WLR is for reading to become a habit in the household, one that is championed by the child.

Created in 2006 by Rana Dajani, the ‘We Love Reading’ (WLR) program uses a grassroots community-based model to foster children’s love of reading. It relies on local volunteers who organize regular read-aloud sessions in public venues in the community, using books in the local language that are age-appropriate, attractive, and politically neutral. The program has made it possible to create a virtual community using a mobile application that allows learners and trainers to share experiences and knowledge. The application also provides a way to monitor and evaluate the program in the interest of maintaining high quality. WLR has become a social movement that is now operating in 33 countries. In Jordan alone, the project has trained 2,000 women and opened 1,500 libraries, benefiting more than 50,000 children.

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