Supporting Children’s Wellbeing Through Story by Tre Christopher

Never have we needed a love of story more than now. According to research children who are the most engaged with literacy are three times more likely to have higher levels of mental wellbeing than children who are the least engaged.

Storytelling is as old as the hills and stories have always played a key role in teaching their listeners how to deal with new challenges in their lives. Engaging with characters in stories, whether through listening or reading, allows us to step into those character’s shoes, feel their feelings and ponder on how you might behave if you were in their situation.

Children are comforted when they recognise their own feelings and behaviours in a character they identify with. Stories can provide valuable tools to helps them to navigate the world around them.

Books and stories became even more important to wellbeing during the pandemic. Getting lost in a book provided an escape and a safe haven for children and adults alike during what was for many a very stressful time. One young boy commented “When I feel sad, I pick up a book and it makes the sadness go away.”

According to research on children’s literacy activity during the first lockdown, both reading and writing supported children’s mental wellbeing. Children said that reading (59%), writing (41.3%) and listening to audiobooks (31.8%) during lockdown made them feel better. Children also said that reading (32%) and writing (24.8%) during lockdown helped them when they felt sad because they couldn’t see their family and friends. (National Literacy Trust 2020)

Audio books are a super resource for both school and home as in some cases they allow children to access books which are more challenging than they can read for themselves. This is empowering for children who struggle with reading. They are able to engage in the same popular stories as their peers and also deepen their understanding through discussion around these texts. Feeling that you are reading the same books as your peers can boost self-esteem for children who find reading difficult. Audio books can also be very engaging as they are sometimes read by the actual author or have music and sound effects to bring the story to life. This can also allow children to really immerse themselves in the text providing a temporary escape from real life.

Children’s wellbeing is still at the forefront of schools’ minds and there are a plethora of fabulous books and resources to support with this. Picture books are perfect for stimulating conversations around feelings and emotions. Children of all ages love picture books as they are instantly engaging and easy to access. They also provide a whole pattern of narrative so children can make sense of the whole story – beginning, middle and end in less than ten minutes. Picture books are not just for younger children! There are many fabulous picture books with rich layers of meaning that can be used in Key Stage 2 and beyond.

It is really important that the children you work with are able to see themselves in the stories they read. This is why it is key to ensure that the books you share promote diversity with representations of characters they can identify with. This is essential not only to children’s engagement but also to the impact the stories can have on their wellbeing. All children need to feel that they are being represented. We cannot underestimate how important this is in supporting validation of their own thoughts and feelings as they align those with the characters they meet.

There are many websites to support with this including:

Encouraging children to read for pleasure plays an important role, not only in supporting children to improve their reading skills, but also in developing empathy. According to research the more novels an adult reads, the better they are at reading other people’s emotions. Empathy is a key skill with regards to supporting mental wellbeing and exposure to story is proven to improve empathy. Research has shown that children are more empathetic if they are read story books or watch films rather than shorter shows. This is linked to their ability to deeply engage with the characters.

When reading a book with children it can be useful to engage them in drama activities to deepen their understanding and engagement.

‘Telephone Conversations’ is a great activity for this. Put children into pairs with one child taking on the role of a key character from the book you have been reading. The other child takes on the role of their friend. They can sit back-to-back and pretend to hold a phone as the main character rings their friend to discuss an incident within the story. This allows the child to step into this character’s shoes and imagine how they would have felt about whatever has happened in the book. The child playing the friend has to be empathetic and imagine what they would say if their friend phoned them up with this issue. This activity can be used with children right from Reception to Year 6 but younger or less able children may need some support first to generate ideas for the activity. This could be done as a whole class, in groups or using talk partners.

It is important to think carefully about the stories and novels you share with children to ensure they focus on the most relevant issues for your class to maximise impact. For example, choosing a book dealing with bereavement if this has become a recent issue. There are lots of websites which recommend books to support children’s wellbeing. We love:

Stories weave magic, they transport us to far flung shores and they bring us back wiser and happier. Let’s read our way to a happier world!

For more top tips check out:

Supporting Children’s Wellbeing through Story: Online Training

Free Online Training! Developing Reading for Pleasure