“Fantasy play is a critical skill builder: It helps children better understand the world around them.” — Laura Rubin, Ph.D., Pediatric Neuropsychologist, Portsmouth Neuropsychology Center, New Hampshire
Her mom called Fractal asking for help and we designed a role-playing game in which the child impersonated a witch living inside a cave, cooking a potion in her big cauldron, a potion so powerful that an evil sorcerer (me) heard of it and decided to steal it from her. The witch could defend herself only by casting a spell. But she didn’t have a magic spellbook, so she had to write one, quickly, before the sorcerer reached her. The little girl wrote and read incantations from her freshly written magic spellbook (including a spell that makes you talk backwards, a spell that makes you jump one one foot, and a spell to induce giggle fits) until the sorcerer surrendered.
The girl went from writing spells to writing songs to writing short stories. Her grades improved (not just in language class), and her negative perception of school significantly changed.
Recent scientific studies prove the power of stories: Compelling narratives cause the brain to release oxytocin, a neurochemical associated with empathy and cooperative behaviors. With good storytelling, our relationship with knowledge is not just mental but emotional: We suffer bad decisions made by characters or we celebrate their victories, even if those characters are fictional. In these imaginary worlds readers experience a simulated reality and feel real emotions to the conflicts story characters face. Studies show that a large exposure to narrative fiction strengthens social skills, such as perceiving what others are feeling and thinking, and the more stories that are read to children, the sharper their theory-of-mind (understanding of the mental states of others).
Once the story succeeds in grabbing attention and creating empathy, it can take us to another time and space, a phenomenon psychologists call “narrative transportation” where we’re more open to receive new knowledge.
Sometimes writers don’t choose their subjects. Professional writers often must write a story on any imaginable topic (werewolfs, Mars, robots, endangered species). So we designed a role-playing game in which we were editors for a science fiction anthology. We requested the boy, who played an author, to write a short story based on the premise, “What would happen if the sun went out?” It would be included in the book along with works by other authors (other kids). The boy was encouraged to conduct research on his own to make the story more believable.
The boy wrote a piece of autobiographical fiction depicting how he grew up to become a famous astronaut who discovered a way to reactivate the Sun’s energy. His father, alive in the story, witnessed his son’s feats to save the planet. The story not only motivated the child to learn more about the Sun but also worked as a tool to explore his emotions. At the book launch in an auditorium, the boy’s teacher was deeply moved when she saw him sitting at the author’s table, telling everyone this has been the best experience of his life.
There’s a variety of studies about the benefits of storytelling in pedagogical processes. Some studies demonstrate storytelling improves literacy in academic areas of fluency, vocabulary acquisition, writing, and recall, as well as self-awareness, visual imagery, and cultural knowledge. Others report that storytelling is not only helpful to boost logic and language skills in children, but also encourages positive attitudes towards instruction.
Here’s when “once upon a time” becomes “there will be a time”: Nu’s Treehouse will help kids master basic reading, writing, and arithmetic skills autonomously. In the application, which has been entered into the Global Learning XPRIZE competition, kids between 4 and 10 years old will choose some of the features of the main character (skin tone, hair color, eye shape, clothing, etc.) before the game begins. The story is about a lonely kid who has moved into a new neighborhood and meets a mischievous monkey named Nu who lives in a treehouse. The monkey takes the kid to different places— the city, the forest, an African savanna—where he meets exciting friends who teach him new things.
There will be a time a digital app will help many kids in the world learn new things while playing. That’s the story Mobility Labs wants to tell.
[Images by Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig and Yau Hoong Tang on Flickr, made available under an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license. “Nu’s Treehouse” image by Mobility Labs, Inc]