They sweep us up in the anticipation and excitement of adventure. We find ourselves intrigued by mystery or fascinated by the inner workings of complex characters, involved and invested in the actions they take and the resulting consequences.
Indeed, through works of fiction, young children begin to enter worlds of fantasy, with these created landscapes often becoming a part of their own.
But did you know that this transportation, this immersion in invention, can foster hope and lead to healing?
Bessel van der Kolk, the prominent neuroscientist and trauma specialist, says that many survivors of childhood trauma whom he knew ‘were avid readers as kids. They were terrified, abandoned, and continuously exposed to violence, and yet they found Harry Potter or Jane Austen. They disappeared in the stories. The imaginary worlds generated by other people allowed them to create alternate universes to the ones they were living in.’ (2015). Emily Esfahani Smith in “The Power of Meaning” (2017) discusses research showing ‘that fiction can help people who have endured loss and trauma cope with their experiences.’
Through story, children can grapple with and reflect on difficult and painful issues. Metaphor can be used to introduce ideas and gently explore subjects, offering layers of protection.
Along with the refuge and potential for processing that story holds, is the hope that is inherent in many a tale.
What is hope exactly? It can often be thought of as a somewhat dreamy emotion when it has, in fact, been defined as ‘a dynamic cognitive motivational system’ (Kaufman, 2011). This simply means that hope is an active, thinking system that motivates us, reducing feelings of helplessness.
And how does hope facilitate healing?
Research has revealed that hope is related to divergent thinking: the ability to generate numerous ideas. Story and imaginative play contain this hope for children in the form of options. Vivien Gussin Paley (2005) believed that ‘developing…ideas in play opens the mind to possibilities.’ Cremin et al. (2006) define possibility thinking as, ‘imagining what might be’, with children ‘posing, in multiple ways, the question, “what if?” It is this imagining that “is significantly correlated with…greater physical and psychological well-being, improved self-esteem, and enhanced interpersonal relationships” (Rand & Cheavens, 2012).
As children explore possibilities, agency is developed. Alone or together, immersed in story, they analyse, discuss, debate, expand and consider alternative endings. The understanding that existing stories can be critiqued, re-imagined, and reworked is empowering, with the conceptualisation of alternative endings incorporating some core areas of possibility thinking in the context of children’s learning:
- The making of connections
- Risk-taking and
(Adapted from Cremin et al., 2006)
There is an almost ever-present awareness of struggle and adversity contained within narrative that reminds us of the constraints and/or barriers that exist in life. There is a battle to be fought, a conquering of some sort to be achieved, even if it is of the self. The use of imagination - and at times the adoption of magical, whimsical thinking - can help to formulate pathways through and/or out of situations. In imaginary worlds, anything is possible: a spell to disappear a disease, time travel to ensure an accident never occurred, a powerful salve to cure pain. Fantastically, we can begin to craft different endings to ones that were, that are, or that may be.
Isn’t this simply denial? I would say not. Rather, the employment of imagination is a means through which we can explore reality. Wishing for different outcomes allows us to acknowledge disappointment or come to terms with the handling of a situation: pretence that causes us to reflect on what could have been or could be ultimately brings us back to an examination of what is now and our feelings about it. Research has in fact shown that high-hope people are those who can anticipate barriers and adapt, moving forward in the face of hardships.
As children fashion their various endings, they develop an understanding that it is within their power to decide where the focus of a story might lie and what their story solutions might be. And as they realise that their ideas can materialise, a resilient enthusiasm for engagement is cultivated, one that will aid them in whatever circumstances they may find themselves in.
Another healing aspect of story recreation and composition is that it allows children to run the gamut of their emotions. Narratives act as a vehicle for the expression of what might be positive or happy but also what is difficult: shame, embarrassment, frustration, anger, grief, and despair. Children can speak of and act out feelings fiercely, something that may be suppressed in real life. In story, there is room for the liberation of longings, and crucially and with consent, these story offerings can be used a springboard for dialogue.
The consideration of stories (the ones we invest in), their creation (the ones we craft and tell), and the curation of them (the ones we assimilate) literally make our lives. Dan McAdams, a story researcher, after working with life stories and meaning for 30 years and analysing hundreds of them, found interesting patterns in ‘how people living meaningful lives understand and interpret their experiences’ (Esfahani Smith, 2017). He found that people motivated to contribute to society and future generations were more likely to tell redemptive stories about their lives, that is, stories that move from bad to good, and that extract meaning from suffering. In contrast, others told what McAdams described as contamination stories, where people interpreted their lives in terms of bad events overshadowing the good.
As we continue to navigate what have been perilous times for many, we find ourselves in need of redemptive stories, of alternative endings, of story arcs that bend toward wholeness and happiness.
I believe that these endings will be found when we begin to further champion children’s choices and value their voices. This will foster in them a brave self-belief, and they will begin to operate in the role of author of their own life stories.
- Cremin, T., Burnard, P. and Craft, A. (2006) “Pedagogy and possibility thinking in the early years.” Thinking Skills and Creativity 1, 2, 108–119.
- Esfahani Smith, S.E. (2017) “The Power of Meaning: The True Route to Happiness”. London: Penguin Random House.
- McNamee, G.D. (2005) ‘“The one who gathers children: The work of Vivian Gussin Paley and current debates about how we educate young children”. Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education 25, 3, 275–296.
- Rand, Kevin & Cheavens, Jennifer. (2012). “Hope Theory”. The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology, (2 Ed.). 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195187243.013.0030.
- Van der Kolk, B. (2015a) “Trauma in the Body: Interview with Dr. Bessel van der Kolk”. Foxborough: Still Harbor. Accessed on 7/7/2020 at www.stillharbor.org/ anchormagazine/2015/11/18/trauma-in-the-body.
About the author:
Helen Lumgair is a Montessori teacher, Feuerstein Instrumental Enrichment Mediator and Education Consultant. She has worked with families and in settings for over twenty years. Helen created the framework and initial lesson plans of the empathy-focused Think Equal curriculum which was recognised with a 2020 WISE award for innovation and the addressing of global educational challenges. She has lectured globally on its implementation.
She authored a chapter on using the process of narrative to develop empathy in early childhood in the book, “Developing Empathy in the Early Years: A Guide for Practitioners” and then wrote the book “Using Stories to Support Learning and Development in Early Childhood.” She is passionate about developing holistic educational strategies to meet the needs of every learner, and about stories.