Traditional stories can help young children develop vital life skills in a safe environment, says Teresa Heapy…
Exploring ideas around what is right and wrong is one of many lessons with which we support children as they grow up. We help them to understand that there are expected rules and expectations about how we behave, and to think about cause and effect.
Young children are egocentric because that is part of their cognitive growth – they learn to build empathy and think about others through interactions.
They discover their actions have consequences and can affect other people’s feelings, as well as impacting their own emotions.
Sharing stories can be a very powerful and safe way to help children consider and navigate complex, moral subjects like these.
With their beloved structures and language, fairy tales are particularly useful for educators to draw on with issues like this.
They begin with traditional openings such as “Once upon a time…” so children know they are being transported out of reality and into a safe story world – where universal themes such as good versus evil can be explored creatively and related to the world around them.
The stories are familiar to most children – when I visit schools, libraries or nurseries, the children I meet are usually familiar with the basic storyline of the most popular fairy tales.
You will know how animated a group of under-fives can suddenly become when you ask, “Who’s heard of Goldilocks?” Once you have children’s attention, you can then develop their understanding around certain topics – for example, the idea that an individual’s actions could hurt others around them.
With a fairy-tale context, even the shyest child can begin to debate the characters, plot and events within the story.
My Very Little series of picture books for early years children are all based around favourite fairy tales, but present the lead character as a preschool child in a contemporary setting. This means all the stories have a twist.
The twist is significant because it highlights the power of fairy tales to not only build a foundation of story language, but also act as a springboard for children’s own writing.
For example, Very Little Red Riding Hood is based on a child who is going for a sleepover at Grandmama’s when she bumps into a wolf, who ends up looking after her.
Tension is created by drawing on the language and structure of the original tale – but here it’s the wolf, not Red Riding Hood, who ends up remarking, “What a big mouth you have!” It’s then a simple step to ask the children to imagine their own ‘Very Little’ version of another fairy-tale character.
Fairy tales can receive negative press and the criticisms are worth investigating. In part, this is due to the stories’ Disneyfication and the fact that many deal with old-fashioned ideas.
But rather than ban fairy tales – which we know are so important to children’s reading diet and literary heritage – we can create a dialogue that challenges some of the issues head-on.
We can read feminist retellings alongside the original stories. Different versions of a fairy tale can be shared, such as one of the hundreds of global variations on Cinderella. And we must address diversity in children’s books by ensuring fairy-tale characters represent all readers.
With so much uncertainty and negativity in today’s society, it’s important that children are adequately equipped to deal with the emotional pressure this can bring.
For practitioners and teachers, it can be a challenge to know how best to approach certain topics, but as their longevity has demonstrated, fairy tales are often the answer.
It’s within the realm of the fairy tale that children can experience a wide range of emotions – from fear and sadness to relief and excitement – in the knowledge that the tale usually ends “happily ever after” for the heroes and heroines.
Without fairy tales, children will lack many important skills to help them with their reading and writing too.
Let’s not forget the quote often attributed to Albert Einstein: “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”
Teresa Heapy is an award-winning children’s author. To read more, visit her website – teresaheapy.co.uk.
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