The importance of storytelling

Here is a very interesting report on storytelling compiled by Nancy Kanter, Senior Vice President, Original Programming and General Manager at Disney Junior, Walt Disney's television channel for pre-schoolers and their families, marking their one year anniversary.

On Disney's influence on storytelling, Lynn Whitaker of the Department of Theatre, Film & TV Studies, University of Glasgow, said: As an academic in the field of children’s media I am frequently struck by the passion and commitment of those who make and promote high quality media for our youngest citizens. By high quality media I mean those programmes, books, games and films that truly have the power to inspire our children, to enrich their lives, to provide insight, wonder and lasting values that shape a child’s understanding of self and others. One doesn’t need to be an academic to know that the name of Walt Disney is synonymous with such media.

"Laughter is timeless. Imagination has no age. And dreams are forever." Walt Disney

Ask almost anyone about their childhood memories and you can be certain that in amongst the scraped knees, sibling squabbles and blowing out candles on cakes, there will be fond recollections of bedtime stories read by a mother or father, sitting on a grandparents’ knee to hear tales of days gone by, going to the cinema to watch the latest film release, or, in more recent times, vivid memories of favourite TV shows.

The common thread in all these memories? Storytelling. That most powerful of mediums that for generations has captured imaginations, inspired play and created lasting memories that are carried right through childhood and passed on to future generations.

In this report, commissioned to mark the launch of Disney Junior, The Walt Disney Company’s latest interactive on air, online and on demand offering for pre-schoolers and their families, we look at how storytelling has the power to not only aid development by allowing children to explore how to act in a variety of social and moral situations; but how great stories can come alive off the page or screen, creating the basis for game playing, social interaction and sparking creativity in our children.

A piece of pan-European research entitled “My First Disney Memory” looks at different generations’ memories of Disney, the lessons they learnt and how they have passed these on to future generations to help keep the magic alive.

Two white papers authored by respected educational psychologist Dr. Arthur Pober and child education expert Dr. Renee Cherow-O’Leary review existing theories in child development and observe how the influence of magic and interactive technologies can help children to engage with stories, creating a deeper emotional connection.

Lynn Whitaker of the Department of Theatre, Film & TV Studies, University of Glasgow examines the evidence for storytelling as both an entertainment tool and a moral compass, providing the context for the role it plays in modern family life.

Whilst Disney’s expert storytelling team share some insight into what makes stories so magical, providing tips for today’s storytellers - namely parents, grandparents and big brothers and sisters - to create some enduring Disney memories of their own.

Finally, as an ever changing technological landscape dictates the way we live our lives, impacting on how we educate and entertain our children, we examine how Disney has built on 80 years of adding ‘a sprinkle of magic dust’ to stories to create narrative, characters and plotlines that resonate just as strongly with today’s technically adept youth as they have done with many generations before.

Following the launch of Disney Junior in May 2011, we celebrate how the art of telling truly great stories has the power to transcend generational and cultural divides to inspire, entertain and create lasting memories for generations to come.

A journey through storytelling

At face value there are many benefits to storytelling: it provides quality time with a child; it is a ‘safe’ activity with little chance of bumps and bruises; and by allowing both teller and listener to venture into a fantasy world, it provides a degree of escapism from everyday life.

But as research shows, the true benefits of storytelling run much deeper, aiding learning and development by helping children to understand complex social and behavioural situations and to explore ideas such as morals, respect and relationships with others, which ultimately help shape their view of life and define their persona.

Setting a child’s moral compass In his white paper Helping Today’s Child Develop a Moral Compass, Educational Psychologist Dr. Arthur Pober recognises storytelling as the landscape by which children can explore their fantasies and find refuge in characters, places, and scenarios that can entertain and enlighten.

Pober suggests that storytelling is essentially an imaginary journey in which both parent and child are introduced to characters and their challenges. For many of the characters in these stories, the twists and turns result in failure as well as success, with characters required to overcome obstacles in order to choose the right path to achieve their goal. These deliberate side trips offer insights and challenges that make the journey more complete and allow the child to view the characters’ choices and examine how they personally might have responded or reacted in similar circumstances.

In doing so, storytelling can help to develop the child’s cognitive skills to process information, solve problems, and conquer both real and imaginary threats – it becomes a child’s ‘moral compass’.

Storytelling can help to develop the child’s cognitive skills to process information, solve problems, and conquer both real and imaginary threats – it becomes a child’s ‘moral compass’ Storytelling provides an opportunity to explore themes such as cooperation, team work, self-control, respect for self, and respect for others.

The characters demonstrate socially acceptable types of behaviour, as well as what happens in situations and relationships when we engage in antisocial behaviour.

Storytelling provides an opportunity to explore themes such as cooperation, team work, self-control, respect for self, and respect for others.

If we think of these elements as part of a moral compass – guiding the child to identify areas of values, ideas, feelings, fears, and relationships – the lessons to be learned help to build a strong navigational toolkit for their social and emotional development. Ultimately this development of cognitive skills through storytelling can be applied to real life, helping a child to make future choices or judgements in their daily experiences - it was Jiminy Cricket after all who stated, “let your conscience be your guide.”

The telling of the tale

New research in childhood development emphasises that children need communication if they are to develop the vocabulary and contextualised knowledge that supports their development and ability to interact with the world around them.

Talking to children, reading to them, singing, sharing daily life through words and helping them acquire language is one of the most important functions caregivers can perform to aid a child’s growth and progress.

Storytelling provides a great way in which to communicate as well as encouraging the almost unique ability children possess to transport themselves to fantasy worlds, taking lessons from one world and applying them to another.

The good that comes from bad

As well as mimicking positive character traits as exhibited in stories, storytelling also allows parents to explore with their child the lessons to be learnt from a slightly darker side of life.

For every story that exhibits kindness (Snow White, Cinderella) or triumph over adversity (The Lion King, Pinocchio), stories also allow us to explore feelings of separation and alienation (The Little Mermaid, Toy Story), loss (Bambi, The Lion King) and jealousy (the queen in Snow White, the sisters in Cinderella).

These concepts provide a touch of realism, allowing parents to discuss complex issues and to ask questions that normally would be difficult. The characters and personalities offer insights and scenarios for children to imagine themselves in and begin to put their feelings into words, providing a safe and secure place to talk about the ability to make choices and to examine their feelings.

Parents can also use the common language of storytelling to further help children understand the implications of the characters’ actions and evaluate the positive and negative attributes of these traits.

Whilst these concepts may appear to be too ‘adult’ for pre-school children, it is important they are introduced to the very young before they are bombarded with other influences, thereby providing children with the ability to understand a difficult situation and respond accordingly should they come across it.

Talking to children, reading to them, singing, sharing daily life through words is one of the most important functions to aid a child’s growth and progress.

Beth Gardiner, Vice President, Original Programming and Development, Disney Junior EMEA says: “A good story needs drama and tension, and baddies play a vital role in helping create this. But they also help children to understand right and wrong. Through baddies, children are able to think out their naughtiest impulses, and see the consequences.”

So although the pre-school child is not likely to encounter a storybook situation, seeing how kindness, perseverance, loss, alienation and jealousy work in the world of the story can enhance understanding of such feelings – and their consequences – in the real world outside of the story.

The child gains self-awareness and empathy for others through the medium of story. Grappling with the feelings and consequences of sharing toys, learning new skills, coping with loss, feeling left out, and wanting what one can’t have, is an intrinsic part of the child’s real-life experience in which the meaning and message of story acts as a guide Charismatic characters From portraying good or evil, innocence or wisdom, being the voice of reason, or providing comic relief, every character has a role to play in moving the narrative along and bringing a story to life.

In a recent study of people’s first Disney memories, The Walt Disney Company’s first ever creation, Mickey Mouse, was named as the favourite Disney hero by both parents a grandparents.

Unsurprisingly amongst a younger audience of 8-14 year olds, Buzz Lightyear and Captain Jack Sparrow were popular ‘goodies’. The interesting link between all the favourite heroes and heroines is that they are not ‘heroes’ in the traditional sense.

For all their loveable traits, no character is the ‘perfect hero’ with realistic character flaws meaning they are all subject to making mistakes:

from Mickey’s calamity with the mops in Fantasia, to Buzz Lightyear’s ‘havea- go-hero’ antics, to Jack Sparrow’s multiple mishaps and mischief, these characters have very human faults which make them real.

It is this human quality of perseverance despite difficulty, and of learning from our mistakes, that makes these characters more credible - and more relatable -for young audiences. Even when these characters are adults, or animals or toys, whether live-action or animated, they embody something of what it is to be a child learning and growing from experience and example.

Little wonder that, for old and young alike, ‘lovable characters’ was considered to be the defining characteristic of Disney’s stories.

For every story that exhibits kindness or triumph over adversity, stories also allow us to explore feelings of separation and alienation, loss and jealousy.

Whilst the hero or heroine of a story tends to steal the limelight, it is often the supporting cast: the sidekick and even the bad guys who have the most memorable impact.

What is interesting is that the baddies evoke even stronger feelings.

Both grandparents and kids voted archetypal villain Cruella De Vil as their favourite Disney baddie, whilst parents opted for Captain Hook.

From the wickedness of De Vil, to the slightly comedic failings of Captain Hook or the conniving ways of Scar, Disney baddies vary from comedic rogues through to nasty villains, exhibiting how the less desirable traits of vanity, lust for power, jealously and betrayal can ultimately lead to a character’s downfall: Cruella De Vil falls in a pile of excrement before being arrested for her wicked ways, Aladdin’s Jafar becomes trapped in his own lamp and Captain Hook gets eaten by the very crocodile he is so fearful of.

This slapstick comeuppance helps diffuse the situation as well as providing a clear lesson in right and wrong.

And not forgetting the sidekick: Baloo from the Jungle Book with his easygoing, fun-loving nature was named as parents’ favourite sidekick; grandparents chose Thumper, who patiently teaches Bambi and goes on to become a close friend; and eternal optimist Dory from Finding Nemo topped the list of favourite Disney sidekicks amongst children.

These long suffering characters, often representing a trusted friend, the voice of reason, or comic relief are one of the most important storytelling mechanisms as they help the hero or heroine to make decisions, moving the narrative along and in the case of Disney stories, often instigating sing-along or play amongst viewers.

When the main protagonist seems out of reach - a prince or princess for example, it is often these sidekicks to whom the audience can best relate and who pride the best role models.

In his famous study in child psychology called ‘The Uses of Enchantment’, Professor Bruno Bettelheim explains the importance of stories as a vital mechanism for children’s psychological growth and wellbeing.

Bettelheim believed that a range of characters offered children a range of opportunities for identification, aspiration, and working through of fears.

Likewise, education experts are placing renewed emphasis on fictional characters as meaningful role models for children as the straightforward, easily-understood values that fictional role models present can be more powerful and enduring than those of the everchanging kaleidoscope of ‘real-life’ role models.

We know storytelling has a role in helping children develop and learn, but why does a sprinkle of magic make stories so much more memorable?

Professor Alison Gopnik of the University of California suggests that magic forms a central part of children’s sense of wonder: “In their pretend play, young children explore the magic of human possibility in a particularly wide-ranging and creative way. Their liberation from mundane cares lets them move into the world of the possible with particular ease.

Stories can create new ways for human beings to live, as well as new worlds for them to live in…The sense of magical possibility that is so vivid in children is also at the root of much that is real and important about our lives. By imagining alternative ways people might think and act, human beings can transform themselves and their communities.”

The child-development theories of Piaget show that the idea of ‘magic’ has a particular resonance for children because their animistic thinking – whereby inanimate objects are believed to have a ‘life’ or force of their own – allows magic to play a pivotal role in making the events of a story make sense.

Beth Gardiner, Disney Junior EMEA says: “In all our research groups and when testing ideas with parents, they always tell us the same thing: fundamentally they just want their kids to be happy and to get along in life. “Magical storytelling helps bring a story to life and create a sense in children that anything is possible. This in turn brings about feelings of optimism and hopefulness that help children to maintain their happy-go-lucky attitudes.”

A sprinkling of fairy dust But magic doesn’t just resonate with kids. Research commissioned by Disney has shown that 93% of people agree that Disney creates magical experiences for people of all generations. From magic carpets to aid escape from baddies, to fairy godmothers turning pumpkins into carriages, or fairy dust that allows children to fly, the magic that features within Disney’s films, TV programming and storybooks, helps transport audiences to new worlds with adventure, logical thinking and human relationships at their core.

The magical treatment of stories alongside artful telling and memorable plotlines creates a sense of emotion and of wonder and it’s this great engagement that helps form lasting memories.

Memorable moments

In a pan-European study looking at the first Disney memories of multiple generations, Mowgli and Baloo singing ‘The Bare Necessities’ was voted as the favourite Disney moment of all time, demonstrating the power of friendship and the benefits of putting the worries of life to one side, if only for a short while.

Other classic Disney scenes including Bambi trying to walk on the ice, Lady and the Tramp eating spaghetti together, Dumbo learning to fly, and the buckets and brushes coming to life in Fantasia also featured highly as favourite moments.

Magic creates a sense of emotion and of wonder and it’s this great engagement that helps form lasting memories

Characters are the key elements in any story, bringing the narrative to life and connecting with the audience, so it’s no surprise that characters are at the heart of 92% of first Disney memories.

A magic touch to capture imaginations

Disney magic transports audiences to new worlds with adventure, problem solving and human relationships at their core.

Classic characters such as Mickey Mouse, Snow White and Bambi feature heavily in early memories demonstrating the integral role characters play in forming memories - in fact 92% of those polled by Disney agreed that “memories of Disney characters stay with you for life”.

The thing that makes Mickey so memorable is that he reflects the best of us all; he is optimistic, adventurous and energetic while being funny and a little silly at times. He is also prone to those little imperfections that make us all human- impulsive, rash and occasionally getting himself into scrapes. It is this humanity that gives him the ability to connect with people of all ages, making himself a good friend to generations of kids, parents and grandparents.

Great stories, in any medium, create a participative and engrossing experience for children. Whether singing along, guessing what happens next or joining in with the speech and action, the most powerful storytelling encourages children to ‘lean in and engage’ rather than ‘sit back and watch’. This powerful engagement, regularly documented by researchers of children’s media in multiple settings and cultures, is what makes the storytelling experience so memorable for the child – and so joyful for the adult.

A first Disney memory is an experience shared by all of the family with the majority of British parents and grandparents stating that they have shared or repeated their first memories of Disney with their child or grandchild, and what’s more, that children or grandchildren have shared their own experiences of Disney with older generations, creating a true family experience.

89% of parents and grandparents agree that “you can trust Disney to create the best experiences for children and families” – meaning that these memories can continue to be shared and passed down for generations to come.

Favourite Disney Moments

Mowgli and Baloo singing Bare Necessities 20%

Bambi trying to walk on the ice 16%

Lady & the Tramp eating spaghetti 8%

Dumbo learning to fly 8%

Buckets and brushes come to life in Fantasia 8%

Snow White cleaning the dwarves’ house 7%

Sharing stories and making sense of our world through story is a universal human experience; indeed it is believed that our sense of story or narrative is the fundamental building block of all other human understanding.

Childhoods change and each child is unique, but the desire to share wonderful stories with children remains a fundamental principle of our shared heritage and culture.

Recreating the magic

We’ve seen how storytelling offers an opportunity to employ language, creative thought, and imagination to nurture important life skills.

But storytelling is also supposed to be fun, to inspire creativity and encourage children to play.

Research commissioned by Disney has shown that the most common feelings promoted by Disney across all ages are happy, magical and excited, which by their very nature are integral to creating an emotional connection, bringing a story to life and therefore creating that deeper understanding.

The research also provided some fascinating insight into how stories inspire children:

57% of parents and grandparents say that storytelling inspires their children to sing songs, draw and colour (56%), dress up (42%) or make up role play games (26%)

Just as the best storytelling draws a child in to the story, so too does it provide inspiration for action and activity outside of the story.

The more engaging the art of storytelling, the more children will seek to extend its magic into their own creative play though dance, song, art, dressing up and games of make believe.

Research with children has shown that television, for example, is anything but a passive medium with preschoolers in particular, characterised as a ‘lively audience’.

The secret to this engagement is that dedicated children’s content has stories and characters specially designed for the age and stage of the audience and with the goal of facilitating such engagement and creativity. In this way too, learning can be fun as children’s natural curiosity and creativity is stimulated through story.

Timeless tales

Disney has always been famed for the use of characters and storylines that are rooted in literature and timeless fairy tales, lessons and characters which are timeless for a reason.

These evergreen tales are the social lessons relating to cooperation, team work, self-control, respect for self, and respect for others that stand the test of time and are as relevant today as they were 80 years ago.

Shared experiences and common themes mean that multiple generations can appreciate the same stories, picking up valuable life lessons and inspiration along the way.

We’ve seen how stories are passed down from generation to generation, helping audiences to understand life’s many complex moral and social issues as well as provide escapism for children, parents and grandparents alike into a safe fantasy world where anything is possible.

But does the rapidly changing technological world in which we live herald the end of storytelling as we know it?

For many years stories were either passed on verbally or through books. In the 20th Century, film, radio and latterly TV, bought a new dimension to storytelling, allowing storytellers to explore the use of sound, music and graphics to truly bring a story to life.

This evolution means that for each generation, their first memory of the magic of Disney is increasingly influenced by new vehicles bought about through developments in technology, reflective of the time period in which they were introduced to storytelling.

Interestingly, it is the core channels that tell a story as opposed to those that represent fantasy or role play that have the most memorable impact - 82% of first Disney memories come from film, TV or books.

For grandparents, almost three quarters of their memories come from movies screened at the cinema. As generations get younger we see an increase in TV based memories and in children in particular, memories from their first visit to a Disney theme park where they interact directly with the characters.

These findings come as no surprise. In less than 100 years, the way we spend our social time, interact as a family and entertain and educate our children has changed exponentially.

What is your first Disney Memory?

About Monica Costa

Monica Costa founded London Mums in September 2006 after her son Diego’s birth together with a group of mothers who felt the need of meeting up regularly to share the challenges and joys of motherhood in metropolitan and multicultural London. London Mums is the FREE and independent peer support group for mums and mumpreneurs based in London and you can connect on Twitter @londonmums