Once Upon A Time...The Importance of Fairy Tales - DuPage Children's Museum

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Once Upon A Time…The Importance of Fairy Tales

May 5, 2016

Last Friday the Museum was filled with little ones in costumes as we celebrated Fairy Tale Fest. We paraded around the Museum, danced at the royal ball, created castles in the block area, and so much more. The night was truly a success and so I thought this would be a good opportunity to explore the question of why children, for hundreds of years and in countries all over the world, love fairy tales.

It seems to me that in present day when you mention fairy tales most people will automatically think of Frozen, or the like, and will equate young childrens’ draw to these stories to the power ballads, sparkly dresses, and heroic acts of dragon slaying and such. When in actuality it runs much deeper.

Children begin to construct their identity at a young age. Through their experiences with their environments, they work on answering important questions that help them understand themselves, the world, and how they view their place in the world. This is a process that continues throughout life but it has been shown that the early years lay an important foundation.

The developmental purpose of these stories varies according by age and can be highly dependent upon what an individual child is dealing with in their life. For this reason, children often want to hear the same tales again and again throughout different periods of their lives because these stories have different meanings at different ages and when facing different difficulties. Very generally speaking, I feel that most young children (2-3 years) are dealing with basic fears. I always had a few little ones in my class when I taught this age that loved stories that were simple, had a scary element, and a child who found the courage to save the day. FYI, my two favorites are Snip Snap What’s That and Abiyoyo. As children age, the internal struggles become more complex.

In telling, listening to, and reading stories, children have the opportunity to cross back and forth between fantasy and reality. A theme that is consistent in all fairy tales is that we all will inevitably struggle with things that are hard in life, but if you meet hardships head on and master obstacles, then in the end you will be victorious. Childhood is the time to learn to bridge the immense gap between your internal struggles and the real world, and in these stories are messages about human experiences and how to deal with basic human predicaments. In this sense it can be said that fairy tales help children to project, thereby fostering their development because they give children opportunities to understand their inner conflicts, act them out, and resolve them in their imaginations.

Children are natural storytellers. I think one of the best places to observe this is in their play. Whether it’s superhero play or playing house, you can see that children are creating narratives which is an important part of their cognitive development. The games that they create are in essence a story that they are writing along the way. When children become engrossed in fairy tales, either inside of their own imaginations or in fairy tale play, they also have opportunities to try out different roles. Picture this – at one point in my teaching career I had a group of 4 and 5 year old girls who were obsessed with Cinderella. Whenever they had a chance to play in the dramatic play area this is the game that they wanted to play. When observing their play I was always fascinated by the fact that they often argued over who got to play the role of the evil step sisters. It was clear to me that they were in a stage of identity development where they needed a safe space to explore what it would be like to be “evil.” I always watched their interactions closely and we had frequent discussions about the actions of the stepsisters and how that might make Cinderella feel. Understanding others and the choices they make is also an important part of understanding yourself, and this is why the moral component of fairy tales is significant. In this sense, fairy tales can be thought of teaching critical thinking as they make visible the consequences of characters decisions, demonstrating to the child that what happens to you can depend on the choices you make.

Albert Einstein said, “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.” And so I encourage you to read fairy tales with your child and not to shy away from the scary stuff (if they are interested in that part). There are so many versions of all of these wonderful stories out there. Barefoot Books has a number of them that I really like and they also have a free podcast of all of these stories which are great for when you and your child need a little down time.

Do you have a favorite fairy tale? What are your thoughts on reading stories that might be a little bit scary? I would love to hear your thoughts and perspectives! Comment here, Facebook, or Twitter!