Childhood is all about exploration and discovery. These two major components of early development come in small, simple ways, like a baby touching their toes for the first time, as well as monumental moments, like a child taking their first steps. Caregivers and children cherish these little victories because they pinpoint growth. Opportunities to explore don’t have to be expensive, even as a child grows older. Every time a story is shared with a child, they are given an opportunity to explore and discover their own imagination, creativity, and understanding.

Some of my fondest memories from growing up are when my parents told me stories, whether they read them or made them up. Bedtime was typically accompanied by story books. When I was young, bathing was also a time to make up stories with my mom and traveling to school was filled with laughter from silly stories we told each other. As I grew to read more and more on my own, books became a place to explore new places, meet new people, and learn all I can about the world. Because my parents filled my childhood with storytelling, I had the opportunity to discover other realities and ideas, broaden my vocabulary, and explore my own voice.

Now, I work with children to develop their love for exploration of the world and themselves through books. I use stories to help them connect ideas, practice expressing themselves, and build self-confidence. In the time that I spend teaching and learning with the primary school children I serve, I make sure they have time to practice reading and creatively respond to the text.

There are many ways to do this, both simple and elaborate. One of the more elaborate ways I’ve engaged them with the text is by reading them a story (“The Day Gogo Went to Vote” by Elinor Batezat Sisulu) and asking them to decide, based on the story, what each character is grateful for. This gave me the opportunity to guide them in defining “gratitude,” and I built on their new knowledge of the word by asking them to write what they each are grateful for to hang on our “gratitude tree.”

If you are looking for resources and stories be sure to visit Nal’ibali, national reading-for enjoyment campaign and the organization I work with in South Africa. There are multilingual stories, audio stories and story cards  available on their website for download to share with children in your life.

There are easier ways to engage children in text too, like asking them to retell a story pretending they are the main character or give an alternative ending for the story. This gives the child an opportunity to be creative and think critically. Activities like this also allow caregivers to monitor the child’s comprehension and assist in language development. Self-confidence is built as children become more and more reassured in their ability problem-solve (for example, sounding out words) and are shown that their ideas are valued.

Storytelling is a fun outlet for self-expression and interpersonal connection, but it also has a strong impact on academic success. Reading for enjoyment develops grammar, spelling, vocabulary, and writing style (Krashen, 2015). Additionally, school-age children who read for pleasure perform better in all subjects, even maths (Sullivan & Brown, 2013). Spending just 10 minutes a day sharing a story with your children, whether before bed, on a taxi ride, or whenever, has the power to contribute in building them up to reach their fullest potential.

Adelia Davis is a graduate of the University of Michigan, The Wallenberg International Fellow and Nal’ibali FUNda Leader currently working with reading clubs at Zonnebloem Girls and Zonnebloem Boys Primary Schools focusing on empowerment, self-esteem and identity through literacy and art.

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