by Liam Heneghan
Once upon a time, in a beautiful but endangered forest far far away a prince and princess met, fell in love and married. They were blessed with a hundred children. “I wonder,” said the princess, somewhat exhausted from her exertions, “how best to raise our dear ones to care for each other and their beautiful forest home?” “I have heard,” replied her husband “that reading to children matters.”
Being of a scientific inclination, the royal couple assigned twenty children to each of five experimental groups. They prevented these children from mingling—for keeping the groups apart was deemed good experimental practice—and assessed if reading matters asking following questions. Should one read aloud to children, or narrate stories of a parent’s own devising, or read and discuss plot points at length as one proceeds through storytime, or should one perhaps, as early as possible, cultivate the youth to read on their own and abandon them to their own devices? One group of children—“our little controls” as the happy couple called them—were raised without the benefit of any stories at all.
The results of this longitudinal study were alas inconclusive. The prince haughtily accused his wife of surreptitiously reading to the control group; the princess icily retorted that her husband’s monotonic voice had lulled everyone asleep thus undermining the study. “I’d sooner stab myself in the ears than listen to another word from you.” Their scientific paper was rejected for publication; the couple lost their funding. And they all lived happily ever after.
An experiment, such as the one in my fairy tale, evaluating the importance of storytime, may strike us as rather unseemly. There is indeed an ample scientific literature on the efficacy of reading to the young, though it has developed using less drastic research protocols. Since storytime is a cherished practice and therefore omnipresent in schools, libraries, and homes it has been the subject of many rigorously designed “natural” experiments (where scholars simply evaluate ongoing practices without deliberately manipulating them in the lab). This research evaluating outcomes in different settings affirms that reading aloud to children enriches a child’s vocabulary, enhances general literacy, entices the child to persist in reading for pleasure, and can, besides, increase empathy, tolerance, reflection and a range of virtues. Besides, time spent reading is time not spent watching television, the baleful implications of which are routinely mentioned by researchers in this field.
Reading can, under the right circumstances, also help children become more attuned to the natural world. Less attention has been paid to this environmental desideratum of reading and storytelling than to other aspects of reading. Because of this gap, I have devoted a considerable part of my research time in the past few years to thinking about how bedtime can cultivate the environmental sensibilities of the child.
It is a rare parent, of course, that gears up for the arrival of their infant with a preparatory review of the academic literature. Yet even without the benefit of this prefatory labour and even without having the benefit of a hundred children with whom to experiment, most new parents and guardians quite intuitively surmise the virtues of storytelling. A bedtime story is as much a part of the institution of the family as birthday parties and early morning snuggles. The benefits seem self-apparent, and the methods, are adaptively applied. Parents simply go with what works and will improvise a strategy that best suits them
Storytime can settle a child down, and prepare them for crossing that often fraught threshold between daytime and nighttime. Those of us in our middle years often employ the expression “sleeping like a baby” to indicate our nostalgia for those magnificent slumbers of earlier life phases. However, to do so is to forget that enticing the child to relinquish the day, and submit to sleep is an enduring domestic battle. A story can help that process along and can, besides, provide comforting fodder for their reveries as the child nods off to sleep.
One might hesitate before intruding upon the soft but potent comforts of the bedtime story ritual by adding, say, the burden of vocabulary lessons, or ethical training, or even the tutoring of environmentally salutary behaviour. There may indeed be those guardians who can with didactic resolve turn the nighttime routine into a lesson of sorts. However, one imagines that this approach can be soporific. Thus, instituting pedagogic programs at bedtime may end up satisfying another less exalted ambition and the child will be gently snoring before the second bullet point of the crepuscular lesson plan.
More realistically, parents and teachers, aware of what reading aloud, or storytelling more generally, can achieve can make laudable choices in the books they read to children—and let the books do the work. Many books, ABC books most conspicuously, have this design in mind. In addition, a parent can fortify this oblique lesson by incorporating commendable themes into bedtime chats with their child. No need for PowerPoint slides!
Though one surely never retires as a parent, but since both my children are now adults, the heavy lifting seems to be done. Our children are unleashed upon the world; we did the best we could. Though it has been some years since I read to them nightly, it is only quite recently that we’ve moved their libraries from their bedrooms to the basement. The process has been a slow one, because as I moved them I was drawn again to these books and started to reread. What I noticed almost immediately was that many of the titles they loved were nature-themed. A hefty percentage were about animals.
As an ecologist, I had, of course, purchased books that I thought would provide especially valuable lessons about the environing world. Some of these books appealed to them—Paul Geraghty’s The Great Green Forest (1992), for example, is a delight—others were duds. More often than not the books my children were attracted to were the standard fare of enduring classics (The Hobbit (1937), Heidi (1881), The Secret Garden (1911), Winnie-the-Pooh (1926), and so on) as well as more recent books (The Harry Potter series, The Hunger Games series, etc.). It became apparent to me that even stories that were less obviously environmental contained profound lessons about nature.
After some fitful progress on this reading project—for the first time I was reading Harry Potter books on my morning train commute—I gave myself a couple of years to systematically excavate the environmental themes in children’s books. The results are reported in a book called Beasts at Bedtime: Revealing the Environmental Wisdom in Children’s Literature (2018). What I found is that arrayed across classic children’s literature is a hidden environmental curriculum. This really should not surprise us, since many writers for children’s were quite explicit in their green sensibilities. JRR Tolkien—whose enduring fondness of trees is well known, and Beatrix Potter—an animal enthusiast and amateur mycologist—are merely the most obvious among these.
In one of his more peculiar essays, Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming (1908), Sigmund Freud drew parallels between the creative processes of the mature artist and the play of children. Both involve the spinning of phantasms. In that essay, Freud proposed that daydreams, like sleeping dreams, are wish fulfilling. Daydreams have the following structure: they link in the mind a recollection of the past with some impression from the present moment, and impels us towards some future ambition, the fulfillment of the wish.
A mature artist will have a reservoir of experiences to draw upon, whereas the child is mainly futurally inclined. The reason that stories are so compelling and important for children—and this, I should say, is my theory not Freud’s—is that they enlarge the repository of experiences that the young mind can draw upon. Children in their day-to-day world are already attuned to nature—loving their pets, splashing in puddles, collecting random scraps found in nature (pebbles, branches, spiders in matchboxes), and so on. Thus, the stories read or told to them by an environmentally adroit parent can combine a compelling fictional experience, with the child’s immediate interests, and can prepare the child for the future.
Just as it is necessary for a parent to be conventionally literate themselves in order to ensure their children growing literacy, a parent must be environmentally literate in order to ensure their young charges get the most from their books. A parent turns to the written page for conventional literacy, but to inculcate environmental literacy they need to incline towards the out-of-doors. A well-prepared parent must read not just stories alone, but must be prepared to read the book of nature.
Once upon a time in numerous forests both near and far, dozens of princes and princess, met each other, fell in love, and had many, many children. Now, these royals lived at a time when vast swirling forces imperiled their forested dwelling, and the parents worried for their children’s futures. So the parents read to the children. Some of those children loved hungry caterpillars, some loved a simple but very thoughtful bear, some loved hobbits, some loved a rambunctious boy with a companionable tiger, and others loved a little girl living in the Alps with her grandfather…. And when those children grew up, lo and behold they found they were equipped to protect their forests from injurious activities. Truly, they all lived happily ever after.
Liam Heneghan is professor of environmental science and studies at DePaul University. His book Beasts at Bedtime: Revealing the Environmental Wisdom in Children’s Literature (University of Chicago Press, 2018) is available. The author’s been told his book makes an excellent holiday gift.
A version of this essay previously appeared in Resurgence and Ecologist.