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​​Seven brain-boosting benefits of storytelling for kids

From when their tiny, pudgy hands fumbled to turn the page of a soft-covered book to hours spent charging around the garden crafting narratives with Hot Wheels cars, the feeling of seeing a child get lost in a story is a lovely one. And the importance of storytelling in early childhood is backed by buckets of evidence. We’ve rounded up the reasons why it’s always worth a trip to a land far, far away.

 But first: what is storytelling?

Since we first sat around the campfire arguing over whose turn it is to check if that berry’s poisonous, we’ve been telling stories. A story is any connected series of events – real or imagined – told in a way that’s trying to do more than just share information. It could be told through words. Images. Actions. Questionable interpretive dance skills. And it might move us, make us laugh, or make us want to hurl a book across the room.  

 Storytelling can mean reading aloud with a little one, of course. But it could also mean listening to an audiobook. Creating adventures with stuffed dinosaurs gallivanting around the house. Making up stories together. Even just trading snippets about your days in the car on the way back from school.

 All of these methods of telling tales can unlock the power of storytelling for kids – not just those involving words on a page (although obviously, we’re fans of those). And with around 90% of brain development happening before kids reach kindergarten, the sooner you start telling stories together, the better.

7 benefits of storytelling for kids

1. Storytelling builds empathy

 Stories show us worlds and lives different to our own – people from different backgrounds and cultures. Different family set-ups, skin tones, accents and personality quirks. Scientists have found that children who are read to regularly find it easier to understand other people, and even that stories make them want to do good in the world.

2. It boosts communication skills

 If you’ve ever been flummoxed by trying to explain what the word ‘facetious’ means to a curious five-year-old, you’ll know that new words crop up with every story. The wider a child’s vocabulary, the more tools they have to express themselves and communicate with others. And it turns out that personalized books can be especially good for literacy skills – a study of preschoolers found that kids spoke more, and for longer, when sharing personalized stories. Across Wonderbly books you’ll find words like narwhal, rebooting, dolefully, frock, and, er, stalactites. Good luck explaining that one.

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3. It expands the imagination

Part of the lure of screentime is that it’s easy. Worldbuilding, characters and lush landscapes are laid out for us to take in. One of the real benefits of storytelling for kids is that you have to conjure all that up for yourself. That kindles a child’s creative spark, and fosters a curious, inquisitive way of thinking.

4. It helps children cope with real-life struggles

 Seeing characters in stories go through difficult things is a way of practicing going through challenges ourselves, from a safe distance. In fact, research shows that the brain activity that happens when we read about a fictional experience is similar to when we experience that situation in real life – so hearing or reading about a problem can help kids work out how they’d solve it in reality. Wonderbly books like The Wondrous Road Ahead are full of challenges that little ones can only solve using traits like kindness, courage and honesty. Will they meet a Cowardly Custardfruit in real life? Feels unlikely. But the principle still applies.

5. Telling stories builds a bond between the child and the caregiver

 When we listen to a story, something a bit magic called neural coupling happens: our brain activity starts to mimic the brain activity of the person telling the story. So you and a little one are in harmony without even realizing. And making or reading stories together involves plenty of eye contact, cuddles and opportunities for physical and non-physical contact – all things that can support secure attachment.

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6. Stories release feel-good hormones

 Happy things happen in our bodies when we listen to or tell stories. Cliff-hangers trigger dopamine, which makes us more creative, attentive and focused. Characters and conflict prompt oxytocin, which can make us want to help others more. And humor wakes up our endorphins. Lots of neurological evidence that telling stories can make kids feel good.

7. They can (literally) ease pain

 More magic now. In one study across a range of intensive care units in hospitals, children who’d spent thirty minutes listening to stories reported markedly lower pain levels than children who hadn’t. The boost in oxytocin and drop in the stress hormone cortisol can ease feelings of emotional or physical pain.

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Tips to make storytime page-turnably memorable

 So you don’t have the accent repertoire of Meryl Streep. Telling stories with kids doesn’t have to be too complicated to bring them all these brain-boosting benefits.

If you tell, they’ll tell. ‘Anything interesting happen at school today?’ ‘Nope.’ Asking a child a direct question in the hope of eliciting a story can sometimes yield monosyllabic answers. Maybe it feels a bit high pressure? Instead, tell a story from your day, and a child might be more likely to respond with one from theirs. There’s a quid pro quo to storytelling.

See eye to eye. Make plenty of eye contact with your audience to get a sense of how they’re finding it. If they look confused or disengaged, you can go slower, repeat words or phrases, or ask them how they’re feeling about the story.

Don’t be afraid of re-runs. If a child asks for the same story over and over (and over. And over?), that can be a really good thing. Something in the story clearly spoke to them, or maybe they want to mentally resolve something they felt unsure about. 

Give them a bit part (or a starring role). Giving kids a role in the story can boost storytelling benefits by involving them in creating the world. For preschoolers, this might be a recurring word or chant. For older kids, you could give them a character to voice. Because personalized books genuinely star them, you could even get them to read their parts.

Get curious. ‘What do you think will happen next?!’ ‘Why do you think she did that?’ If you’re reading from a book or spinning your own tale, asking a child questions is another way to involve them and boost their understanding.

So: we know that there are science-backed benefits of storytelling for kids – for building key life skills, for making them feel good, and for bringing the two of you closer. And we also know that stories can start small to reap all those rewards. Now, is everyone sitting comfortably? Good. Let’s begin.