How Fairy Tales Make Mighty Minds

Guest post by David Sewell McCann

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When Albert Einstein gives advice about intelligence, we take it seriously.

“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.”

We read his words, and all nod our heads in agreement because, well – he’s Albert Einstein – and because it simply rings true. We have witnessed our children enter into a pleasant kind of trance when hearing a classic tale, and we have all enjoyed their thankful sigh of satisfaction when it was complete. We have likely experienced a story this way ourselves – when we turn off our rational mind and start swimming in the colorful images of myth and fancy, we relax and let go.

But how does it make our children more intelligent? How can listening to “Briar Rose” build a bigger brain? Why didn’t Einstein say ‘play them Mozart’ or ‘show them a Monet’ or even ‘practice the times tables’? He was a nuclear physicist, after all. But no, he was very specific: fairy tales – and they must be spoken out loud.  So, why?

This question invites many conversations about the colorful landscape of fairy and folk tales, the science of child development, and the complex and passionate experiment that is child rearing and education.

So many opinions have flowered out of this intersection, but let us first step back and simply observe the child who is experiencing a story.

I say “experiencing” because it is so much more than listening. When our child listens to a story – simply told, without the extra stimulation of sound effects or visual images on a screen – their eyes gloss over, their jaw slackens, they become still, silent and completely focused. Their focus, however, is not on the storyteller as you might believe at first. Rather, it is an inward focus, a focus on the images of the story itself. They are actually “seeing” the red fox, the gold coins and the old gray man in the woods. They can “hear” the fire crackle in the hearth, the mooing of the cow and the brave call of the gentle huntsman. They can even smell the red rose and taste the steaming porridge. They are fully immersed and attentive to the world inspired by the storyteller’s words. They are not unlike a plant as it soaks in water from its roots and sunshine from its leaves – they absorb the story into their being. The story – like water, sunshine and nutrients – actually becomes a part of who they are.

And the child grows.

I believe this is what Einstein meant when he said that fairy tales make children more intelligent. He understood, having had a healthy diet of Grimm’s fairy tales in his youth, that the rich images in the scores of stories passed down through generations imparted practical lessons and enduring wisdom to the children lucky enough to receive them.

Contemporary research has since corroborated that engaging the imagination (or ‘creating images in your mind’) actually grows the neural connections or pathways of the brain. As the author and child development specialist Joseph Chilton Pierce said, “We find that storytelling challenges the brain to create entirely new routing every time. Every new story means new neural connections must be made…”

In listening to stories, as the child creates their own images, they consequently build a new map of neural pathways in their growing brain. The stories we tell our children have a profound impact on the complexity, versatility and adaptability of their growing brains. And, as Einstein proposed, that informs their intelligence.

In other words, your child’s brain changes – and whatever the images, messages and life lessons that are held in that story, become a part of who they are. We can think about stories in the same way we think about food: at mealtime, we offer vegetables and fruits, whole grains and healthy meats, all nutrient-rich, nutritious foods. Stories, too, can have high nutrient value: well-crafted, well-told stories are abundant with rich and nourishing images. These stories can not only entertain, but can demonstrate the power of authenticity, empathy, stewardship and wonder.

This is why we set out to create Sparkle Stories: we wanted to offer families a source for well-told stories that would not only engage, but nourish their children. We knew that, for children ages three and up, high-quality stories add a quality of wonder and richness that is unsurpassed by other forms of media.

You will know when your child has been nourished by a story. Their eyes will be bright but soft. They will sigh and lean back and stretch. Some even rub their bellies and say, “That was good.” Often they will hop up and be ready to play, inspired by the goodness of what they just ingested.

So, if you’re inspired, bring storytelling into your children’s lives. Tell your own stories. Offer high-quality audio stories. Create story-rich experiences. And grow their imaginations. The gift you are giving is not only rich in entertainment value but rich in brain-growing nutrients. Listen to Einstein – stories make you smarter!

This is a sponsored post brought to you by Sparkle Stories.

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David Sewell McCann fell in love with spinning stories in first grade – the day a storyteller came to his class and captured his mind and imagination. He has been engaged in storytelling all of his adult life through art, film-making, teaching and performing. In 2010, he and his wife launched Sparkle Stories — an online resource for original audio stories for children. Out of his experience as a Waldorf class teacher and parent, he has developed a method of intuitive storytelling, which he now shares through workshops and through the Sparkle Stories blog.

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Jennifer Ockelmann

About Jennifer Ockelmann

Jennifer works with Huddler.com, Mothering’s Advertising Representative, where she acts as a liaison between Mothering.com and our sponsors. She was raised by an attachment parent and is passionate about showcasing sponsors who match the values of the community. Jennifer grew up in California, and she loves swing dancing, Spanish food and the beach. She can be reached at Jennifer@Mothering.com.