Stories help make us more human!

One of many fantastic books by Vivian Gussin Paley

And yes, I grant myself that exclamation point!

Here’s an interesting piece by Annie Murphy Paul about the neroscience of reading fiction.  It validates things that many know intuitively: among other things, reading fiction makes more empathetic humans.  (And it slashes through those conversations–conversations which, frankly, piss me off–about how nonfiction is somehow more important than fiction in helping people deal with “the real world.”  I love that the study corrects for things like whether people who are more naturally empathetic read more fiction.  Take that!)

Described in the piece is how we register sensations as we read descriptive language: how the evocative qualities of words like “cinnamon” work our sense of smell.  This aligns with something I heard the poet Cathy Smith Bowers discuss: when we read a word aloud, its sound affects us emotionally, but even when we read a word silently on the page, our bodies experience similar sensations.  As a writer of fiction, all this helps me understand why I care about what I do.  Why it’s important to make stories.  As a reader, it all sounds very true.

Last night, I finished reading Vivian Paley’s book, A Child’s Work.  Its emphasis is on the importance of fantasy play and stories in developing a young child’s ways of processing and coping with the world.  All the books by MacArthur Fellowship recipient Paley that I’ve read have moved me–she is a gifted writer, and her subject is so vital.  In her work, in addition to her observations as a wise teacher, she records and shares dialogue from real children in real classrooms, making sense of their real worlds and lives through fantasy and imagination.  In this book, Paley rightfully despairs at the push to bring academics to children too soon, leaving less and less time for preschool children to dream and do their natural thing.  Among many passages in this book that move me and are so true, Paley writes, on p. 102:

“Every day brought me new evidence of the preeminence of fantasy in children’s thinking.  It has reinforced my certainty that we perform a grave error when we remove fantasy play as the foundation of early childhood education.

We are going too far in the opposite direction.  Some school people feel that because young children engage in magical thinking we must pull them on to another track as early as possible; having added extra years of schooling to their lives, we are emboldened to counteract fantasy play with ‘reality-based’ activities.

Is this not the adult version of magical thinking?  To imagine that the purpose of early childhood education is to reorder the stages of human development is like the story of the prince who was turned into a frog.  In attempting to turn children into creatures that are unchildlike, we ignore all the messages young children give us as they play.  The frog turns back into a prince when the princess recognizes his need to be treated with kindness and respect.  In the case of our children, this would include the kindness of acknowledging that their perceptions and premises are not the same as older children’s or as our own.”

This idea of how we think we can reorder the natural stages of a child’s development haunts me.  Paley’s work speaks to me in particular now as the mother of a young child.  And pausing to read it has helped me slow down enough to more fully engage in the play my daughter is about.  So many of her sentences start with “Pretend that…” and I’m paying closer attention, and doing more active pretending with her.  (It’s good for adults, too!)  But anyone who is interested in stories and storytelling and their central importance to our humanity ought to read Paley’s books.  The Boy On The Beach is a really good one, too, and gets at why storytelling is important to building communities.

Now, back to my story in progress…