Africa: Why Reading Stories to Your Children Will Help During Times of Crisis

(file photo)
8 April 2020
guest column

During the lockdown period of the COVID19, many South African parents and caregivers have been left feeling worried and confused. The nationally imposed lockdown means that individuals are required to stay at home for their own and others’ safety. For both children and adults, it is normal to experience a range of emotions about it – fear, anxiety, loneliness, boredom, sadness and even anger.

The lack of normal daily routines can be disorienting and frustrating for family members. And without the safety net of school and work, families are required to spend an unusually large amount of time with each other.  During times of stress and anxiety, babies and children are directly influenced by their parents’ responses. Children are as sensitive as adults to the changes and pick up on their parent or caregiver’s emotions – often subconsciously internalising adults’ emotional states and reactions.

During this time, adults and children alike form their own narratives to better understand crises. This becomes harder when they feel disconnected from the community and their surroundings. Thus, maintaining an engaging and interactive relationship with children in the home is crucial in helping them cope throughout this difficult time. Children, like adults, seek to make sense of their world using stories.

All human beings are innately storytellers. From the question “how was your day?” to “guess what the neighbour did!”, we arrange our days in the form of a narrative to help ourselves, and others, connect with our experiences. Using narratives is not only a powerful way to express ourselves, but also to learn about our relationship with the world around us. Stories are thus an easy and fun way to talk to children about difficult topics and are useful in piquing their curiosity and interest about the world.

Setting aside time every day to read-aloud and share stories with children exposes them to a wide vocabulary and provides them with verbal and visual stimulus – an important exercise that they would be missing since the closing of schools. The Vygotskian principle of mediated learning is a psychological theory that suggests that children have a limit to what they can learn alone. However, if they are guided and supported by a parent or caregiver, they are able to learn more, and learn at a faster rate. An incredibly important impact of reading together with your child is the powerful bonding that occurs between adult and child in this activity.

Paired, interactive storytelling where the parent and child engage in a story is an easy way to inspire conversation, curiosity and bonding – whether a written story, radio story, or an oral story that you tell your child yourself. Each home and each child will require their own routine – whether it is fifteen minutes a day, or an hour or more of reading and telling stories.

The key aspect is ensuring that your reading and storytelling space is safe and fun, helping children feel comfortable to ask questions, absorb information and engage in the content. This activity serves as a potent tool for child and parent to engage meaningfully in a time of uncertainty. A good resource for parents looking for free children’s stories in different South African languages, as well as tips and ideas on how to share them, is the Nal’ibali reading-for-enjoyment campaign’s website, SABC radio stories and newspaper supplement. This way, families can access a range of stories (with low-data usage) on their phones and other devices, in the safety of home.

Further, parents and caregivers may wonder about the benefits of reading to children who cannot yet speak or read at all – perhaps you are at home with a baby, new-born or child below the age of six.  It’s very important to note that reading to children does not only include children who are of school-going age. The first few years of a child's life is a foundational period for both cognitive and emotional development.

Children’s brains grow at a rapid pace at this stage of their life, and they absorb not only what they see and hear, but the relationship between themselves and their caregiver. Research has shown that this sets down the psychological “blueprint” for how the child may interact with the world and others later. The more positive engagement and stimulus a baby receives, the better for their overall development. Using stories as a tool for interaction with a baby – making faces, creating character voices, and showing pictures – helps to create a healthy attachment, as well as provides stimulus for cognitive development.

Today, adults and children are bombarded with the stories on the news, media and phones on the crisis. This can be overwhelming and distressing for the best of us. Setting time aside to reconnect with your children and family members during this time may help alleviate your and their stress and loneliness. Ensuring a set routine in which reading aloud together and sharing different stories not only helps children maintain their literacy development but creates a playful space in which you and your child are able to connect and de-stress using the power of narrative.

Malini Mohana is a clinical psychologist based in Gauteng, working with adults and children in community clinics. For more information about the Nal’ibali campaign, or to access children’s stories in a range of South African languages, visit www.nalibali.org.

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