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

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

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

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.

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

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,
, stories also allow us to
explore feelings of separation and
alienation (The Little Mermaid, Toy
, 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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A magic touch to capture

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

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

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.

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

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?

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