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Nov 19, 2021

Why do little kids love stories so much? What is it in them that wants a story before bedtime? Why do they listen so intently and question you about every detail? Why is it that whenever you overhear two or three little children on the playground, they’re almost undoubtedly in character as warriors, or princesses, or police officers, or cowboys, or magical beings? Why do they so naturally, with no help from adults, step into the roles of characters in their own spontaneous stories?

Well, it turns out all that play and storytelling has a serious purpose, and may even be essential to transforming an infant’s mind into the mind of adult. Tracy Gleason, professor of psychology at Wellesley College, summarizes the substantial research on the relationship between make-believe and “a child’s developing creativity, understanding of others and social competence with peers.”

“Imaginary play,” she writes, “could encourage social development because children are simultaneously behaving as themselves and as someone else. This gives them a chance to explore the world from different perspectives, and is a feat that requires thinking about two ways of being at once, something that children may have difficulty doing in other circumstances.”

Imaginary play exercises one of the mental muscles that likely sets us apart from animals: so-called “theory of mind,” or our ability to project our self-awareness onto others and imagine what life must be like from their perspective. The idea that others are not merely furniture in our sensory environment but have an inner life much like our own is a deceptively large cognitive leap. After all, we’ve never occupied anyone else’s mind, and never will. We have only our own experience to go off. Yet without making this leap, human beings could never have true relationships with each other. When children assume the role of a character from a movie or book or even one they’ve invented, they are establishing the rudiments of culture and society, and even preparing their hearts to receive and obey the Golden Rule.

Story-based play emerges from theory of mind. It is what happens when children realize there are other characters besides themselves that share in the experiences and limitations of their world. It’s also why, if you listen closely beside the playground, you will hear them pausing their games incessantly to argue about those rules.

“No, your superpower is fire, mine is water.” “We’re both orphans, but we aren’t sisters.” “Velociraptor is faster than T. rex!” “The princess escaped—the bad guys didn’t find her.”

As Gleason puts it, “…some research suggests that children engaging in social pretend play spend almost as much time negotiating the terms and context of the play as they do enacting it.”

I’ve even heard my children—particularly my most detail-oriented son—giving voices to military action figures and anthropomorphized Hot Wheel cars, who hotly negotiate the terms of their imaginary worlds.

Yet while stories are correlated with and probably essential for their growth and education, children aren’t the only ones who love a good tale. Adults since the dawn of recorded history have told their own stories about the origins, meaning, and ultimate destiny of our world. Most of all, they’ve told stories about their place in the world, and what it means to be a hero, rather than a villain. We think of the

Enūma Eliš, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the exhaustive visual tales of Egyptian gods and their mischief, the Iliad and the Odyssey, Beowulf, and of course, the Bible.

For Christians, the fact that the Bible contains the true plot of human history is no impediment to its also being a marvelous story. The opposite, in fact. As C. S. Lewis puts it, “…the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened…” If it’s true that stories are an essential part of how human beings learn, grow, and become virtuous, then it shouldn’t surprise us that when God set out to reveal Himself to fallen man, He did so not with a bullet-pointed list of doctrinal propositions, but with a story—one complete with danger, intrigue, murder, romance, long quests, courage, and self-sacrifice.

I suspect it’s very possible we would have no hope of learning the most important moral and spiritual lessons in life without stories, both factual and imaginary. I think of one of my favorite movies, “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Toward the middle of the film, the discouragement of George Bailey, particularly for a man who can imagine feeling his disappointment with life, is crushing. He really does seem to have gotten the short end of the stick, to have been discarded by the world despite all his sacrifice for others. You sympathize with his desire to give up. If at that moment the film stopped and rolled a bulleted list of reasons why George Bailey is actually a blessed and rich man, why his future is bright, and why he should thank God for his wonderful life, audiences would scoff and walk away disappointed. And rightly so—even if all the bullet points were true.

But that’s not what we get. We get the second half of the film, in which George Bailey enters a make-believe world where he was never born. He is granted the wish of Job, and for one terrible night, lives in a story where he was never a character. He is appalled and grieved by the results, and realizes through the medium of story how richly God has worked through his life to bless others, to hold greed in check, and to bring irreplaceable joy into the world. By the end of this brief runtime, we have undergone an emotional and spiritual transformation of our own. The power of one man’s story has taught us something no amount of didactic instruction could.

This gets to the heart of what I discussed this week on Upstream with the CiRCE Institute’s Heidi White. Stories belong at the heart of education, no matter how old we are, because they are how humans put flesh on the bones of fact. They are the medium and language of meaning—truth made incarnate. And if the goal of education is to form virtuous men and women, then the quality of the education we give our children depends largely on the types of stories we tell them.

I hope you’ll listen to my conversation with Heidi, and I hope it inspires you to honor the imaginations of the children in your life—not only because it’s how they learn and grow, but because no matter how old we get, you and I will never outgrow the classroom (or the playground) of storytelling.