It’s All Childs Play, Get Ready For Thrills And Spills

2nd April would have been Hans Christian Andersen’s birthday, a milestone date being celebrated this year by International Children’s Book Day.

Childs PlayBest known for his fairy tales, including The Princess and the Pea, The Little Mermaid, Thumbelina and The Emperor’s New Clothes, Hans Christian Andersen’s stories will be fondly remembered for their enthralling adventures and suspense, or in my case, the smooth clotted cream coloured cover that bound my edition, complete with fairy castle sketch.

Reminding us of the importance of literacy and reading, International Children’s Book Day is the perfect opportunity to shun the Disney franchising extravaganza and share your own childhood favourites with your child, be it Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or George’s Marvellous Medicine, a favourite among many would-be potion makers, young and old; Enid Blyton’s charming Adventures of Pip of which I’m lucky enough to have an original copy; The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe; or Harry Potter’s gripping yet haunting escapades.

As a new parent, I remember being surprised at just how scary many fairy tales are, and yet my childhood memories from Sleeping Beauty to Rapunzel, Snow White to Hansel and Gretel had left me with a warm and fuzzy nostalgic glow. How so I wondered when these stories were not so distant from the daily horrors reported on the news? Stories of deception, jealousy, cruelty, megalomania and brutality abound, and the fairy tales of old share in their portrayal of good versus evil, and of course, that all important, happy ever after. So why then are fairy tales so enduringly popular and why are they so important for our children to experience and enjoy?

You may have seen a debate unfolding over whether Eysenck’s scary bears were just too scary for 21st-century children? My children and I never found out the answer but I do recall questioning the logic of reading scary stories at bedtime, finding myself favouring the occasional censoring instead! With the benefit of hindsight, and more sleep than in those early sleep-deprived parenting years, I now recognise that traditional fairy tales have much in common with the timeless favourite games of peek-a-boo, hide and seek and knee bouncing rhymes. As we read stories to and with children and play these memory-making one-to-one games, guaranteed to bring squeals of laughter, not only are we sharing with children a magical closeness and memories galore, but preparing them for the shocks, risks and disappointments of life. Take the game hide and seek, charged with the excitement of hiding (perhaps in a small dark space); the suspense of being found; the delight of not being found too quickly; the heart-pounding anticipation of nearing steps, and the ultimate fear of not being found at all, or worse still, not being important enough for someone to bother to find. With echoes of peek-a-boo, a favourite with babies worldwide, these games share the intimacy and shared focus of snuggling up to read a good book.

As a play therapist, I work with children who sadly have missed out on being read to at home. But the demise of reading is not limited to the minority as almost half of all parents don’t read to their child after their seventh birthday, even though 10 minutes reading would make them 13 times more likely to read above the national average.

Much of the appeal and rationale of fairy tales becomes evident when viewed through the lens of Bettelheim (1977). He recognised how fairy tales help children process their own problems, try out different approaches, experience less palatable emotions and ultimately, turn chaos into order, because happy ever after is, after all, an essential ingredient of the fairy- tale recipe for success. Fairy tales support children’s emotional development and resilience, not to mention the positive boost to endorphins of having to snuggle close in readiness for the scary bits! Reading to our children is vital to nurturing a love of reading which will set them up for life, providing instant escapism, be it Enid Blyton’s famous Five’s adventures or the thrills and spills of Hogwarts.

With time-poor children and parents snatching at the jaws of shared reading, why not make April the time to dust off those childhood (or modern) favourites and snuggle up with your child for a thrilling adventure.

Sue Gascoyne – Educational Consultant