The Power of Story

“…meaning must be actively constructed, with learners participating directly rather than being treated as information receptacles. Stories can be amazing allies in this effort.” — Scott D. Sampson

I can still see it so clearly.

My now eight-year old — then itty-bitty — sitting on the floor under the dining room table, his little hands manipulating magnetic letters. We had just used them during an early reading lesson, and truth be told, it hadn’t gone particularly well.

I had had such high hopes. We’d lay out the colorful tiles of letters, engage in some kinesthetic learning by moving the letters around, build words in a tactile fashion, bring it all together with sound, sight, touch, and ultimately, magically, we’d be reading! Because he’s a boy and boys need to move things with their hands and get physical and dive into hands-on-learning, right?

So they say. And so we did.

And as it turns out, sliding the colorful, friendly letters around on the flat surface of my darling little magnetic board was kind of boring. We used our hands, we built words, but… meh.

So, we wrapped up our little lesson and I wandered out of the room feeling disheartened, and distracted myself by tending to the baby and preschooler who were playing in an adjacent room.

Later, when I returned to put away our supplies, there he sat, engaged in his own world of letters come to life. I lingered just within earshot — not so close as to interrupt — and I could hear him playing with them as one might play with stuffed animals or action figures.

He had given them voices, speaking in the sounds the letters naturally make as well as adding in dialogue. He had given them personalities and character traits. Some were friends, some were mere bystanders to the goings on of this alphabet world he had created. He had taken the lines and shapes that join together to form words, phrases, and ideas and he had imagined them as little people.

But what was most poignant to me was that he had given them a story. And within that story, he built a relationship with those little letters. They were more than just colorful pieces of plastic. They mattered to him and he wanted to spend more time with them, engaging with them, exploring them, understanding them more deeply.

Relationships and Story

For whatever reason, this was an “ah-ha” moment for me. It’s obvious and it’s something that’s been done before, so I’m not sure why it hit me the way it did. I’ve read plenty of picture books that follow the same basic template of letters coming to life to make words together. And I don’t know, maybe we were watching a lot of Word World back then.

At any rate, it’s not like my son had hit upon some brilliant new idea. But there was something about watching him in that moment that struck me in a new way.

We humans are relational beings. We crave relationships in a variety of forms. Sometimes, it’s through the closeness of others, whether through friendships, family, or the companionship of a beloved pet. And sometimes it’s through the joining of concepts in a way that is meaningful and salient to us. I’m sure that when I sat down with my son and that pile of letters, there was little meaning or value for him. Or at the very least, what meaning he did place there was based on what I had essentially told him he should view as meaningful. But when he brought them to life in his own way and through his imagination gave them a face, they grew in meaning and importance. They became something to which he could relate.

The Construction of Meaning

I’ve been reading an excellent book by Scott D. Sampson called How to Raise a Wild Child. The other day, I happened upon the following passage:

“As Maria Montessori, Rudolf Steiner, John Dewey, and other early twentieth-century educators knew all too well, meaning must be actively constructed, with learners participating directly rather than being treated as information receptacles. Stories can be amazing allies in this effort.”

How true.

My son didn’t need me to pour the information about letter sounds into him as much as he just needed to play with them and work it out in his own way. And his own way was to make them into characters in his story.

Kids learn through play. Open-ended, imaginative, creative play is some of the best, in my opinion, and it’s what comes most naturally. This isn’t new information. It is discussed frequently in the world of child development and education. I see it in my three boys, every day. Through play, they take anything new they’ve recently learned and turn it into a game or, more often, an elaborate dramatization.

When we read about Lewis and Clark, they were in the backyard later that day pretending they were rowing a keel boat up the Missouri River. When we read Robin Hood, our backyard became Sherwood Forest and they could be seen running around with bows and arrows, trying to twist their Texas tongues to speak in Olde English. When we learned about the Vikings, they took up their wooden swords and shields and emerged as Leif Erikson, exploring the western seas.

What is pretend play other than stories brought to life? Stories and childhood go hand in hand. Whether through the reading of books or the oral tradition of fairy tales and fables, stories are one of the best ways to teach children. Stories bring a lesson to life. And when you combine a child’s imagination with a story, it explodes in meaning for them. While daydreaming or acting out through play as I described above, they place themselves into the story, literally imagining they are in the world created by the story, interacting with the characters, becoming a character there themselves.

When my husband, Brandon, first brought up the idea of writing a children’s book about electronics, I immediately knew he was onto something. STEM & STEAM education is all the rage. We’re completely on board with it in our home, as are millions of others. There are countless electronics kits and games available and we have enjoyed many of them.

But let’s be frank: Diving into the world of electronics with kids can be expensive. There are so many wonderful options and opportunities available, it can be easy to get caught up in the excitement and want them all. And then, once we have all these amazing games, gadgets, and kits, deciding exactly how or at what age to expose our children to it all can feel daunting.

Our three kids are 8, 6, and 3 years old. The older two are pretty comfortable and competent at this point when it comes to building circuits and even soldering(!).

But that little 3 year old… well, you can imagine. With him, we’re smack in the middle where his high interest and excitement, but low competency intersect. He wants so much to be right in the thick of it all with us and his older brothers, but he’s still just a bit of a whirling dervish, which doesn’t always blend well with the patience sometimes required in wiring up circuitry. Regardless, we welcome him into the fold and expose him to the wonder of lighting up LEDs or beeping buzzers for as long as he is willing to sit and engage.

But do you know what he will sit and engage in, at great length? Stories. As he brings book after book to us to read, my energetic, go-go-go, non-stop, roly-poly, little guy settles in and finds a stillness and quiet that is rarely seen otherwise. He loves to hear the same books again and again, revisiting old friends and reliving their tales and adventures. So what if those old friends just happened to have wires, batteries, and light bulbs attached? What if those old friends actually WERE wires, batteries, and light bulbs.

Building a Relationship with Electronics Through Story

His daddy wrote a book. And in this book are characters with friendly faces, personalities, and goals to work together. The main character is a green LED (light emitting diode) who must light up his hometown before the sun sets. He enlists the help of his friends to do so and they learn to come together and complete the circuit. It’s simple, it’s sweet, it’s perfect for young children.

My personal vision for this book is that our children will get to know these components, these characters, these friends in a whole new way. That they will make the connections and see the relationship between plugging something in and watching it glow. That when they pick up the components of a circuit, they won’t just see metal and plastic any longer. That they will see friends from a story they love and know on a deep level that goes beyond merely linking wires and electricity together.

Is this a shameless plug to get people to support my husband’s writing venture? Of course not! Okay, maybe just a little. But more than that, this is part of our family’s story. This is a place where our love for learning through story is explored in a new way. We hope this will provide a gentle introduction to electronics for other families that will ignite a love of tinkering, playing, reading, and learning.

And we can’t wait to see where the story will lead next.