The Story-formed life – how reading develops your child’s moral imagination

So, firstly, many apologies for radio silence. I have no idea how people blog in the school holidays. Or through family birthday seasons. None. But I did get some good reading in while we were in Devon for Easter and wanted to share some nuggets with you about the story-formed life, both the sub-title of a wonderful book and the concept itself.

credit: Kelly Sikkema on Flickr
credit: Kelly Sikkema on Flickr

I hope I can infect you with enthusiasm about this concept, whether you consider yourself a bookworm or not! It’s not something I’ve seen written about in many places and may come across as a ‘novel’ (sorry!) concept. Ready to get excited? It’s also something for those of you with older children and, as mine grow up, I’m more and more conscious to provide resources that go beyond the pre-school age-group,

Of course I want my children to enjoy books. Reading is not only key to accessing the rest of education, it can be an enormous source of pleasure. And it can be such a source of shared fun and bonding for a family. As a family on long car trips we have spent time in Moomin valley, walked with Winnie the Pooh through the Hundred Acre wood and found out why the Owl was Afraid of the Dark. We’re looking forward to the books we’ll share as the children grow, allowing us to travel together to both other places and other times, making memories as we go. So much more pleasant than Ryanair, although we hope to travel to places faraway with the kids too!

As I share more and more of my childhood favourites with my daughter in particular, (we’ve just started our second Narnia book and I’m ecstatic), we’re discovering not just more to talk about but, increasingly, a shared way of looking at and interpreting the world. Shared stories give us examples, a vocabulary as we talk about life, a way of seeing the world and experiencing it beyond the confines of our day-to-day experience.

Sometimes it can be something as inconsequential as saying “Hey, these woods remind me of the bit where Lucy first gets into Narnia” or “Does your toy mouse ever go to Brambley Hedge?”. And it would be enough for me if the enjoyment or the family bonding this provided were the only advantages of reading aloud (or directing our children’s reading) but I’m beginning to see it more and more in terms of character formation.

Here’s an example from a book you may well know. Pigwig and I read Little House in the Big Woods when she was just 4, one of my childhood favourites. We were also keen at the time to instill a habit of gratitude into a little girl who had, to our dismay, developed quite a materialistic attitude and sense of entitlement. I quickly realised that, rather than lecture my child, it was much easier to have conversations about Laura in the story.

Pigwig was astonished that Laura was expected to take part in household chores every day, was ecstatic if she had sweets twice a year and had only one doll to play with and no other toys unless she made them. Most horrifying of all to our 4 year old was the fact that Laura could not have Calpol if she felt ill! It led to many great conversations about gratitude for what we have, the value of hard work, the treasure that is family life and so on.

Soon after we started on chapter books with Pigwig, I came across the Read Aloud Revival podcast . The host, Sarah MacKenzie, is a home-schooling Catholic Mum, passionate about reading great literature aloud to children, not just as part of their education but as part of their spiritual and character formation. She is a home-schooler but speaks to all sorts of families with huge enthusiasm and a sense of fun.

There are many great episodes about all sorts of things from reading poetry and Shakespeare to children to reading aloud with teenagers but the episode that most sums up her ‘why’ for reading aloud and the value of literature in general is this one with Sarah Clarkson. I’d really encourage you to go have a lesson to this one because it is inspirational and you’ll be reading with your child on the sofa by the end of the day!( If you need a quick tutorial on how to listen to podcasts, just let me know in the comments but I use a great app called Sticher on my phone.)

Sarah Clarkson’s book, Caught Up In A Story, is all about the value of great stories in helping encourage excellent character in our children. This goes well beyond reading The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe to explain the Christian faith or reading obvious morality tales; this is about the effect of living vicariously through different characters, experiencing risks and adventures that would not be a part of every (or most) children’s experiences, ‘meeting’ an array of heroes and villains throughout different periods of history and in fantasy worlds, considering the choices each character makes within the confines of their situations and limitations and so on.

Sarah was home-schooled herself by the amazing Sally Clarkson, author of many incredible books for Christian parents and proponent of a highly literature-led curriculum. Now aged about 30, she is reaping the fruit of this approach to her spiritual formation and general education. Sarah gives many examples from her own childhood of how reading authors such as Tolkien and, much earlier, carefully chosen picture books and early chapter books, formed part of her parents’ very clear plans for how they would follow the biblical instruction to “train up a child in the way he should go”. I can’t think of anything much more enjoyable! She goes into the way a story can help your mind tackle a problem such as fear or doubt in a way which can be much harder with pure reason.

Both Sarahs, podcaster and author, stress by the way that reading aloud does not have to end when our children can read for themselves, which is a good thing too as it is my favourite thing to do with my kids! Who can resist a great story and a snuggly little body or a happy toddler with their lego? Sarah MacKenzie also has lots of good ideas on her site on how to entertain toddlers while you read, how to choose great books, whether or not to allow children to do something with their hands while you read, when to tuck in reading sessions (we’ve tried reading during bathtimes and teatimes to great success!) and how to track down good book suggestion. I’m also part of a British-focussed Read-Aloud-Revival Facebook group where we suggest more UK-focussed book choices to each other.

So, these days, if I ever find myself in a charity shop, you can usually find me checking the shelves for books I loved as a child or have had recommended. Those I can’t find I put on my Amazon wish list for birthday ideas or buy cheaply second-hand. The library cards are always maxed out. Building a library does not have to be expensive and can create such a powerful heritage.

So, what d you think? Has anyone else come across this approach to helping our children grow? Are you a bookworm too? Share your thoughts here or on the Facebook group. And go get reading!


One Response

  1. I’ve recently found the read aloud revival too, and am loving the podcasts. So rich and encouraging. I’ve enjoyed finding some of the US recommended books, and excited to hear about the UK Facebook page too! Thanks for sharing!

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