Dr Mohammad Farid Bazger has overseen the distribution of hundreds of thousands of illustrated storybooks to children in Afghanistan, many of them traditional tales collected by Idries Shah. Here he discusses the power of storytelling as a parenting tool — and how stories and storytelling can help children deal with any number of issues, from coping with negative emotions to cultivating empathy.
History of storytelling in Afghanistan and neighbouring countries
Because of its geographical location at the crossroads of several countries, Afghanistan has been a transit route for South Asian countries with Central Asia, China’s route to Iran, and many other different countries throughout history. Through Afghanistan, commercial assets were transited from one country and region to another. Afghanistan’s geostrategic location has also been used for military purposes.
As in the past centuries and to a certain extent today, there were no advanced vehicles such as airplanes, trains, buses, and so on, all transportation was done via land with animals such as camels, horses, and mules.
These trips and trades were in the form of caravans. Lone trips were also possible, but in order to protect against bandits and thieves, travellers and traders often moved in large caravans and spent the night in special places called caravanserais. Each caravan had a leader known as Sarban, and guards accompanied the caravan with their dogs.
Because at that time there were no devices such as television and radio to pass the night, there were storytellers in the caravanserais, who told stories narrated from the past times to the travellers in the caravanserais and received money and gifts in return. This work had many benefits, as it helped travellers pass time, unwritten stories travelled from one region to another and passed down from one generation to another, and at the same time, the stories were kept alive.
In the city of Peshawar, there is a historical area called Kase Khawani, which may have had a large caravanserai in the past, or it may be close to the large caravanserai near Balahisar, where travellers used to come to listen to nightly tales. Balahisar was a military place where high-ranking members of the government stayed, and it is possible that they visited the Kase Khawani caravanserai to listen to the storytellers, or the storytellers visited them in Balahisar.
As there were not any modern entertainment facilities back then, storytelling was not just limited to the caravanserais, but it also took place in the villages, and in every house, the elders of the house would tell stories to children and young people at night. In our village, my cousin’s daughter was a very skilled storyteller who had memorized hundreds of stories and used to tell them to us at night. Idries Shah has collected many of these stories. For example, I remember listening to Neem the Half Boy as a child from my cousin’s daughter.
The importance of reading stories to children
Reading stories to children can have an impact on their emotional well-being, emotional development, and mental health. Reading stories to children can be one of the most important factors for their success and progress in their future life.
In recent years, much research has been conducted on the importance of reading stories to children, indicating its positive effects on their intellectual and psychological development. That is why psychologists and educational experts advise parents to tell stories to their children from the very early years.
Psychologists believe that one of the most important effects of storytelling on children is the emotional, emotional development and mental health of the child.
Also, storytelling and reading stories can play an effective role in creating a bond between a child and books from the very early years of the child’s life. Parents can memorize short stories and tell them to their children before the age of one year, and later, they can introduce story books into the child's life.
From the age of one year, children can understand the meaning of the stories that are read to them; but books with colourful pictures will still remain more attractive to them.
It is recommended that you ask your child to tell you stories him- or herself at preschool age. In addition to creating a sense of pleasure and interest in storytelling, this work is also very effective in developing his or her creativity.
The effects of storytelling and reading stories can be summarized in the following:
Creating a sincere relationship
In recent years, much research has been conducted on the importance of reading stories for children and its very positive effects on their intellectual and psychological development have been proven. Therefore, psychologists and educational experts advise parents to tell stories to their children from the very early years. This can create a closer relationship between children and their parents and can be soothing for children. This can be one of the most important factors in their success and progress in their future life.
The role of storytelling in academic growth
As mentioned before, telling stories to children before school can greatly affect their success and academic progress in the later stages of their lives. Research has shown that children who are connected with stories in their childhood are more successful in their academic studies.
Another important benefit of reading stories to children is to strengthen their creativity. Reading or telling stories strengthens the child’s ability to visualize and imagine, and also strengthens his or her creativity, directly and effectively.
Reading or telling a story to a child expands his or her vocabulary. At the same time, it indirectly teaches the child how to use grammar.
It has been observed that children who have been told or read more stories are at a higher level in terms of language. That is why it is emphasized that parents must read books to their children at their preschool age in order for them to be better prepared in the academic stages of their lives. Therefore, it can be suggested that kindergarten teachers should turn to oral storytelling more than just reading stories to children.
Helping discharge negative emotions
The main purpose of reading or telling stories to a child is to entertain and create a sense of joy in them. Books are read to children so that they feel happy and have an enjoyable time in the world of stories. But with this, other goals are also achieved.
The child thinks along with the characters of the story. This identification with the characters of the story helps the child feel emotionally and mentally at ease. At the same time, they learn skills subconsciously.
By having story characters as models, the child starts a learning process and the characters can work as role models for them.
Today, psychologists use storytelling to treat children’s psychological problems as a specialized method of understanding children’s feelings and discovering the cause of their problems.
For example, psychologists treat abused children by telling them stories about animals. With the method of storytelling for children with autism, they try to promote the positive aspects of their behaviour, increase their self-confidence, and increase their ability to communicate meaningfully with the world around them.
Fortunately, the use of this method can improve the abilities of children who might be falling behind others intellectually.
The storytelling method is also used to facilitate the treatment process of children’s physical problems.
For example, storytelling is used to treat diabetic children so that the child can understand their life situation and disease conditions and accept treatment methods through stories. Through stories, it is explained to the children what changes the disease causes in their lives, what treatments are needed, and how the child should deal with it.
Stories can be effective in terms of social, emotional, and moral education and convey many rules, social norms, and ways of life. Another important set of benefits of storytelling is teaching how to face problems, solve them, and offering many good behavioral practices for the child.
Different stories offer children solutions that are unexpected and surprising, but at the same time possible and positive, and this in itself is a way for the child to prepare to face problems and try to solve them.
Stimulating curiosity and strengthening imagination
Telling interesting and exciting stories will stimulate the child’s curiosity, making them want to know the end of the story, which will help them learn, grow and progress.
The use of imaginary and imaginative elements in stories will strengthen the child’s imagination and thinking. Storytelling makes the child imagine the story’s characters, the outline, and places of the story in their mind when they are listening to the story, and this improves their imagination, creativity, and ability to visualize. And it will help them think freely and without limitations about the events.
Listening to stories will help in improving the child’s concentration ability and make them focus better on everything with greater precision.
Increasing verbal skills by introducing new words and phrases
By hearing new words used in stories, a child's vocabulary will expand and their speaking skills will improve. They will also get to know the intricacies of language, and most importantly, the ability to pronounce words and phrases can be developed with storytelling.
Improving the learning process
Storytelling is a unique way to improve the learning process, both at the knowledge level and at the personal level, which will help the child in simplifying complex subjects.
Many children do whatever they do out of habit and do not have a proper understanding of it, but if storytelling is consistent and regular, it will make the child go about their daily routine with purpose and gain a correct understanding of it while learning to enjoy it.
Cultivating emotional intelligence and learning empathy
The development of emotional intelligence refers to the awareness and control of one’s emotions and expressions, and this is key to success in different stages of human life.
The ability to think about others, put oneself in their place, and understand their feelings will help strengthen the child’s sense of empathy with others.
Strengthen communication skills
Listening to stories and understanding them will improve the child’s communication skills on different levels. For example, some children hesitate to ask questions even when their minds are full of curiosity.
Therefore, storytelling can teach children the art of asking questions correctly and can teach them how to start a good conversation with high confidence.
Reducing stress and anxiety
Stories not only entertain children, but the fantasies created by these stories in the child’s mind will also reduce their stress and anxiety levels.
Encouraging the child to tell stories
Listening to engaging stories may encourage children to engage in story-writing activities so that they too can narrate their own personal or fictional stories. Storytelling art is continuous and can be developed, and telling different stories with different genres is interesting and fun for children.
Whether one tells their child a short story or a long one, they will retain the main theme, characters, and other aspects of the story in their mind, which may be a little problematic because one would then have to tell entirely new stories to their child.
Getting to know the facts and experiences of life
Experts believe that children can get to know the facts and experiences of life through stories and legends, and in addition, they are influenced by the characters in the stories, and their understanding and expression capabilities are strengthened. Additionally, due to improvement in creativity, teaching, and learning language skills, they can easily communicate with the outside world.
Increasing motivation to discover abilities
Storytelling can encourage a child to discover the meaning of being unique, and it can improve their skills to make real connections between thoughts and feelings.
Reading stories and listening to them encourages students to use their imagination, and this strong imagination can increase self-confidence and personal motivation in children, creating positive ideas about themselves, and helping them see and imagine themselves as worthy and capable.
Expanding the child’s intellectual range
Familiarizing the child with the cultures and customs of different countries of the world through storytelling helps them open their mind to different people and places. Therefore, one should try to tell stories related to other countries to their child so that their level of understanding improves and their intellectual range expands.
Helping the child to face problems
Storytelling is a great help in enabling a child to face problems and ultimately relax them. If the child hears about the lives of heroes who have experienced complex problems and hardships, they can have a better understanding of the problems and become stronger in a way. So the stories in which the child learns more about suffering and hardships can make them become more resilient in difficult and complex circumstances and allow them to have a rational attitude.
Choose the right book
Although psychologists emphasize reading and telling stories to children, realizing the positive effects of this practice is contingent on choosing and telling the right story. Therefore, choosing the right story books that, in addition to being enjoyable, also help develop the child’s creativity and mental development, requires accuracy and familiarity with the subject.
Indeed, one of the main concerns of some families who are interested in reading is choosing the right book for children.
Parents should note that the book must be suitable for the child’s age, needs, and mental and psychological characteristics and not rely on their, the parents’, personal taste in this matter.
For example, children over the age of 10, in order to satisfy their curiosity and desire for excitement, may turn to thriller and horror books.
Some parents, without knowing, forbid their children from reading such books when those books can fulfil the needs of these children who are over 10 years old. Of course, if their child suffers from mental and emotional problems or suffers from constant anxiety, worries, and phobias, parents must not allow such thriller and horror books.
In recent years, books aimed at teaching children personal and social skills have entered the market. These books are often grounded in psychological sciences and can be very effective in teaching children.
Dr. Farid Bazger is a graduate of Kabul Medical University and has spent his career working in education and health development. In 1992, he founded the Khatiz Organization for Rehabilitation (KOR), a non-government organisation committed to publishing books for children and university students. Dr. Farid is an author and former adviser to the World Health Organisation. In 2021, he fled Afghanistan for Pakistan and has recently emigrated with his family to Canada.