Anyone that knows me, knows I love books. My favourite place to relax is in a second-hand bookshop surrounded by mismatched shelving and rickety stairs with books piled on every step. Hay on Wye is my spiritual home as it is the largest collection of second-hand bookshops I know. Books have always been an obsession of mine and I finally achieved by lifelong ambition of having a wall of books last February which has been a great backdrop for Zoom calls! But my love of books doesn’t stop at reading them myself.
I love sharing books with our children at our nurseries, preschools and daycare provisions. I know that though books, I have experienced hundreds of lives, thousands of experiences and a million moments that would be impossible for me to experience in real life. Books and stories transport me to into different worlds, minds and realities and because our brain interprets stories in the same way as real experiences, I get to gain the knowledge, understanding and skills as if I’d actually lived it.
Every time we experience a story or read a book, our brain interprets the information using emotional and sensory cues that allow us to process it as a real event. Our brains then respond by creating the same connections and building the same structures it would build if we experienced it in real life. This is why books and stories are so important and we prioritise reading and sharing stories with children at Our Monkey Club every day. Every story your child experiences, is actively building connections and structures in their brain without having to leave the sofa. This year, of all years, this has been so important for the wellbeing and development of our children.
We are a social species, and we have always shared information through stories to ensure it could be remembered and passed on over time and space. Stories allowed information to be handed down through generations to retain that knowledge and understanding and provide it for those that came after. Stories also allowed information to be transported from group to group and even country to country so that we could share ideas, concepts and strategies that had been developed the other side of the world. We still do this daily as we watch YouTube videos from people in every continent before we even have breakfast! We still share historical information and ideas passed to our children through nursery rhymes and traditional tales and the roots of these stories are often lost in time as we sing about a Ring of Roses with little concept of its macabre origins. Many of our traditional stories aim to share our cultural ideas, social conventions and teach children about key concepts such as danger, kindness and grief which is why they are still so loved today.
While it is vitally important for children to learn to read to manage successfully in our modern society, it is even more important for children to be able to understand and construct stories. It has been shown that children that understand and can use stories and narratives have greater long term academic success. Phonics, sight reading, and letter identification all show an impact on reading in the first few years of school life, but as children’s literacy becomes more about comprehension and writing arguments, essays and sharing information, narratives and stories become the most important factor in academic success. This skill creates a huge advantage as the child gets older in comparison to rote learning reading systems. This is why we focus on stories and narratives at Our Monkey Club.
We all share stories everyday. Telling people how you got to work or what you did last night or about the holiday you went on when you were little are all stories and take the form of a narrative. At Our Monkey Club, we help children understand the narrative of their own life and experiences by writing learning stories and sharing them with the children. These stories are in a folder for the children to access and share everyday and help them understand how to create a narrative from experiences they have had and to use language to share their ideas, memories and experiences. Our children love sharing them with their friends and families. This is one of the key strategies we use to support holistic development across the entire curriculum, and it takes the form of a story.
Children use stories to explore the parts of life that are uncomfortable, confusing or downright frightening. The stories we share with our children include grandmother being eaten, pigs being chased and cornered in their own home and wolves being drowned! Stories are a safe way to explore the overwhelming emotions children are trying to understand such as fear, grief, anger and sadness. Stories allow the world to be opened up and experienced while in the safe arms of someone that loves them and keeps them safe. They can close the book at any time and they can revisit the emotional journey over and over again until the child learns how to manage the emotions effectively. They help us to learn about the darker side of the world through animals in the woods and toys in the nursery or even fairies at the bottom of the garden! Enough of a step away from reality to feel safe but close enough to be experienced at an emotional level. As Neil Gaiman said, “Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten”. One of the reasons he is one of my favourite authors.
At Our Monkey Club we have always had lots of books in our settings that allow children to explore the world and we have developed a system we named our ‘Key Authors’. These are the books we have analysed thoroughly and acknowledge that they offer high quality experiences for our children. This doesn’t mean that our children shouldn’t read other stories and books. In the same way we watch action films and reality TV as well as documentaries, children enjoy stories just because they interest them. However, our ‘Key Authors’ are those books that use language that will extend our children’s vocabularies, present new ideas and concepts, use literary techniques such as rhyming, alliteration, blending, prediction, repeated refrains and include great characterisations. It is the difference between the learning gained from reading popular fiction in comparison to classic literature such as Jane Austen, Margaret Atwood or William Shakespeare! While all reading is fun and learning will occur, some books offer a different quality of experience.
I saw a meme today that said that ‘Asking a reader to name their favourite book is like asking a parent to choose between their children’. I do agree. I become completely confused when asked that question as so many books are my ‘favourite’ for many different reasons. Luckily, I don’t have to choose. I now have a wonderful library of my own at home and I can re-collect all of my ‘favourite’ books. I also get to build amazing libraries for our children at each of our centres and at Burton I’ve even created three! I get to watch children develop a love of stories and reading and I know this is one of the greatest gifts we can offer your child. I hope you have read some of the stories we love and if not, I hope you find the time to explore them with your children. The practitioners at Our Monkey Club will always be excited to share the stories and books that your child enjoys with you and we can often lend you books to explore at home. I look forward to hearing about your favourite children’s books but for now I leave you with a quote from a man that needs no introduction in an article about children’s literature.
“I have a passion for teaching kids to become readers, to become comfortable with a book, not daunted. Books shouldn’t be daunting, they should be funny, exciting and wonderful; and learning to be a reader gives a terrific advantage.” Roald Dahl