The Importance of Myths and Stories for Children
The first and not the least important reason for telling stories to the children is that they love them so. But every teacher should have clearly in mind why the children show such a spontaneous interest in stories, and should seek to use it to the best possible advantage.
What is a Myth?
People who are in a childlike state of development attribute the same powers of which they themselves possessed to the natural phenomena and objects about them. For instance, we know that early man believed the sun, wind and water to will them good or evil. The trees, clouds, yes, even the sticks and stones, were endowed with powers to harm or benefit them; hence primitive's man's worship of these objects.
When the ancient Norse tried to account for the change from the beautiful summer to the dreadful winter, he tells of the death of the sun god, Balder. Thus "a myth is a primitive man's interpretation of natural phenomena."
The Child and the Myth
Children makes myths also. They live in a world of imagination, giving life to all imaginative things; a crooked stick becomes a galloping steed, and a bundle of rags the loveliest human being.
The children in a first grade were asked their opinion about the reason for the difference between summer and winter. One little fellow answered: "The sun is sick so, he can't work so hard;" another: "The sun is very lazy now, he gets up so late in the morning and goes to bed so early at night;" a third; "Jack Frost and the sun have had a fight and the sun is hurt." In each of these answers is the beginning of a myth. So when the children are told fairy stories and myths where animals and trees talk, they are only listening to their own thoughts put into form: we talk to the children in their own language. Nothing is too wonderful for the imagination of the little child.
The Elements of a Good Story
In the selection of stories for the primary grades it is of the greatest importance that the teacher knows the elements of a good story. Peter, Paul and Epsen, a Norwegian Fairy Tale, is selected because it has a good plot, a great deal of dramatic action, and because it contains a living truth.
What is the truth of the story? Espen is the most forlorn one of the poor man's sons, he who amounts to nothing, who lives in the ashes playing with the cinders, and is laughed at by everyone. But he wins the princess and half the kingdom. What does that mean? Do not look at the appearance of things, dress, or wealth, they amount to nothing when something great is to be done; then it is only a question of knowledge and courage to act.
We Need Wonder
It was Espen who cut down the oak and dug the well. Why did he find the wonderful ax and pick that could work alone? Because he wondered, because he stopped and thought, because he did not go thoughtlessly past, like his brothers; he wanted to investigate and know. But the brothers, who laughed at him, they got no princess. Only those who will stop and ask and think will ever reach anything in this world.
There was a man in history, too, who wondered and asked, and whom people laughed at. His wonder took him to a new world. He discovered America. And what great things have not been accomplished because some men stopped and wondered. Most of us go past too often.
Even if we do not make some great discovery, if we do not gain the princess and half the kingdom, he who stops and looks and thinks on the way will gain something beautiful for himself and others.
Get More Out of the Story
When a story is told, children should never be asked to interpret it. If it is the right kind of story it will remain with the child and grow into deeper meaning with the development of his mind. If the moral or ethical truth is forced on the children the vagueness and mystery of the story is spoiled, that in which has the greatest charm for the children.
The story of Peter, Paul and Espen bears a relation to the history study of Native Americans and Hiawatha. The lessons the children unconsciously learn from the history studies is the same as though learned in the fairy story; Through the investigation and application of knowledge gained, man has overcome the obstructions of his environment.
There is a natural desire on the part of the children to tell and talk about anything which has made an impression upon them. Given an opportunity for such a desire to express itself, the children will tell stories to others. Here is one of the best chances to develop good oral language. Drawing illustrating the story on a chalkboard or paper will intensify every image the child has gained, and, therefore, be of immediate help to the written work. So, through the story, as well as through the other subjects of thought given, there is the best opportunity for teaching oral language, writing (including spelling) and drawing.
Article Written By: Mrs. Gudrun Thorne-Thomsen - Originally Published in The North-western Monthly: Volume VIII. July 1897 - June 1898 - Edited for relevance to current time period.