'I've seen the kids come out of their shells, it's been really amazing'
Ahead of National Storytelling Week, Stephanie Bell discovers it can boost intelligence, vocabulary and self-confidence
Once upon a time — four words that can instantly create a warm fuzzy feeling and transport us back to a magical time in our childhood when we cuddled up with mum or dad for a bedtime story.
The happy ever after, though, was not just the lovely lulling into a deep peaceful sleep that we enjoyed, but that by reading to us our parents were giving us something of a head start on life.
The benefits of regular reading to young children go way beyond the comfort induced by that quality one-to-one time for parent and child at the end of a busy day.
Studies have shown that by making books an everyday part of a child’s early years you can help them to understand emotions and feelings and boost their thinking capacity as well as increase their vocabulary and knowledge.
It also develops their concentration and listening skills as well as their imagination and creativity, and many will go on to enjoy a lifelong love of books.
In fact, reading to young children is now regarded as such a vital parenting tool that its importance is being highlighted annually with National Storytelling Week, which begins next Saturday, January 31.
Among the events to mark the week locally is an exciting partnership which will see children get the chance to bring classic stories to life through drama.
The Belfast School of Performing Arts is teaming up with Little Rays Nursery to launch a new Mini School of Performing Arts throughout the week, which runs until February 7.
It is part of an ongoing programme at Little Rays entitled the Healthy, Happy, Smart initiative, which aims to explore new ways to boost children's physical and emotional wellbeing.
Children in the nursery's three branches in Lisburn, Ballymena and Moira will take part in a series of masterclasses to bring to life the classic fairytale Beauty and the Beast, while the older children will play out scenes from the much-loved Matilda.
It is hoped that adding drama to the mix will really bring the story alive, allowing the children to immerse themselves in it and its characters, pushing their imaginations to the limit.
As avid supporters of storytelling, the team at Little Rays is marking National Storytelling Week by bringing in the experts to take it one step further and give the children a chance to enjoy it through a new medium.
The drama team from BSPA will use a range of tools including dancing, acting, singing and puppetry to engage with the children.
In the run-up to the special masterclasses, the nursery assistants will be reading to the children and encouraging them to ask questions and get involved through role play, dressing up and in creating their own stories using the key characters from the classic tales.
The ultimate goal is to encourage children to come away from the classes eager to share their experiences with their parents and encourage them to take part in active storytelling at home.
Director of Belfast School of Performing Arts James Huish is excited by the prospect of working on such an innovative programme with Little Rays Nursery.
"At BSPA we have a firm belief in the ability of drama to benefit young people as they grow and develop into young adults," he says. "You're never too young to perform and it really helps young people to grow in confidence.
"It's amazing to see so many young people from BSPA really coming out of their shells as the term progresses and some of the quietest children have turned out to be some of the most talented performers.
"Many of our children have been with us for the four years since we launched and they are truly thriving.
"We decided to launch BSPA Juniors for children aged three to six years as this is a stage when young children are really soaking up information from the world around them and they are starting to get much more from interactive play.
"We are looking forward to engaging with BSPA Juniors and helping them to further understand the stories through dancing, acting and singing."
As parents and carers of young children themselves, Little Rays owner Michelle Rea and nursery school manager Margaret Kelly know at first hand the benefits of early storytelling.
Margaret (38) lives in Lisburn with her three children, Chloe (15), Joshua (13) and Isla (4) along with her partner Colin Torney (41) a turf accountant.
She has read every night to all three of her children from birth and has seen the benefits, especially in her oldest child Chloe.
Chloe, who is a pupil of Victoria College, Belfast, is an avid reader who loves poetry and her mum is in no doubt that those early bedtime reading rituals have contributed to her daughter's love of English literature.
"Probably because of my background in childcare I have always introduced books to my children from birth, starting with picture books," says Margaret.
"I believe it is vitally important not just for the comfort of storytelling but for the learning they get out of it.
"They can learn their shapes and colours from books and I have found with my children it really helped them to express themselves through discussing what is in the book, not just the words but what's in the pictures.
"My youngest can't read the words yet, but she can tell the whole story by looking at the pictures and is very proud of herself for being able to do that.
"She loves to be included as a character in the stories, which really helps bring them alive for her.
"She gets two books at bedtime every night and loves the routine of getting her jammies on and choosing her books and getting into bed to hear the stories."
Margaret has also seen bedtime stories help with the emotional development of her three children.
"If they are worried or concerned about anything they often found a way to talk about it through what's happening in whatever book we were reading," she says.
Meanwhile, Michelle also sees the pleasure storytelling brings to children every day through her work. Her own children are grown up and as young adults can all name their favourite books from childhood, even though Michelle readily confesses that when her children were very young the full benefits of reading to them were not as well known.
Michelle (45) and her husband Kieron (46) have four children, Chris (27), Ashleigh (22), Mark (19) and Lauren (16).
Since opening the business 22 years ago, Michelle says she has strived to offer a service which she as a mum would want for her own children.
The importance of storytelling as an educational tool in the early years is something which has been at the forefront of her business throughout that time and the reason why the nursery is making a special effort to mark National Storytelling Week.
"When my children were young I read a bedtime story to them every night because it was what I was used to growing up but probably back then I didn't realise just how important it was for their overall development," she says.
"I was a childminder when my children were young and wanted to do it on a bigger scale and be able to work, but still have my children with me, which is how we came to set up our first nursery.
"With the business you immerse yourself more in the needs and benefits of early education and reading is right up there with the biggest single thing you can do for a young child.
"It enhances the child's learning abilities, social skills and concentration and in the nursery we do it two ways. We have a cosy corner where the children can go any time they want to look at or read a book and we also have a storytelling time every day, when we get the whole group of children together.
"There are so many benefits and even culturally books can show young children how people in other countries do things differently; from that point of view hopefully in years to come they can grow up and be more tolerant."
Two avid little readers who are also members of BSPA know the thrill of being able to bring characters alive on stage.
Nine-year-old Michael Nevin from Carryduff is a seasoned stage performer after three years with the school and has performed in the Grand Opera House, The MAC and Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey.
The St Joseph's Primary School pupil loves to read and is thrilled to be able to slip into a character from one of his favourite books.
"I find reading really, really fun, all the different stories from the magical ones to the horrifying ones and the in between ones," he says. "I quite like Jill Thompson and I find Roald Dahl very magical and funny.
"At bedtime my mum or dad would have read part of a story to me and I now I love to read myself. I love drama, which I think comes from my Grandpa Stanley as he is the only one in the family who sings around the house and is in a choir and does different shows and pantomimes.
"I find it really fun because you never know what is going to come up next and it's fun to do the different shows and all the different roles - one time you can be a baddie and one time you can be a goodie, depending on what you feel like.
"When I read a book I always think about what it would be like on stage or in real life; by performing a story it's like getting to see what it would be like in actual life.
"It's like Olaf, the snowman in Frozen. I would love to see how he would be made for stage, I don't know how they would make a snowman but it would be great to see."
Fellow performer Gemma Carlisle (13) from Belfast describes herself as a book worm. She, too, enjoys seeing favourite stories brought to stage and being part of them.
Gemma, who is a pupil of Grosvenor Grammar, says: "I always have a book on my bedside table and read every night.
"I like to read everything but especially stuff that plays come from.
"My mum and dad would have read me the Disney princess stories at bedtime but even in nursery I was always the child who would pick up a book and would have been performing in class.
"I joined the drama group in 2013 and have done lots of shows. My first was Les Miserables, which was such a good show and this year I did Miss Saigon which was an incredible experience and which made me feel like I was part of the West End.
"When I read, I love trying different accents in my head to see what fits best; it makes me feel like I'm one of the characters and gets me involved in the story."
- For more information on Belfast School of Performing Arts or BSPA Juniors, visit www.belfastschoolofperformingarts.com or tel: 028 9560 8640. Little Rays Nursery caters for around 400 children, aged from two months to 12 years, in three locations across Northern Ireland. To find out more visit www.littleraysnursery.com
The benefits of reading with young children include:
- It helps them to understand emotions and feelings
- Boosts thinking capacity
- Increases a child’s vocabulary
- Develops concentration skills
- Creates an understanding of the world around them and introduces them to other cultures
- Increases knowledge
- Promotes academic learning
- Boosts imagination — the key to creativity
- Enhances a child’s listening skills & curiosity
Add drama into the mix and there are even more benefits, as it:
- Builds confidence
- Encourages co-operation
- Develops emotional intelligence
- Assists physical development
- Further develops creativity
- Nurtures friendships