The Power of Storytelling

According to research by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the typical American child — age 8 to 18 — spends no less than seven and a half hours a day engaged with media. According to research from Sesame Workshop and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, younger children are also consuming media heavily — about 4 hours a day for the typical five year old. Television, cell phones, computers, etc. are not just part of these children’s lives — in a very real sense, these devices and their benefits (and pitfalls) are a focal point of their every day.

This is an opportunity for society — educators and entertainers alike — to come together to promote the important goals of proper child development, within a context of reaching children where they already are. But it will take a large-scale effort from many industries.

We know about the power of modern telecommunications. We experience it daily, constantly. Not only are children plugged in at almost all times, but adults are as well. Technology, alone, is quite astounding, able to accomplish things that previous generations would liken to magic.

But the magic of other industries — and generations — still holds today. One piece of alchemy? Storytelling. Characters, fictional and real, make up the framework for conversations and parables, forming bonds between people and ideas. A cartoon character named Homer Simpson gave us the word “d’oh,” now recognized as an actual word by the Oxford English Dictionary. The Force and Jedi knights and light sabers are all a figment of the imagination, but discussed as if real.

It should go without saying that we first come across character development and storytelling at a young age. And it is not just Elmo and Big Bird. The power of storytelling is among the most compelling ways to engage kids, beginning in early childhood. At the Joan Ganz Cooney Center’s recent forum on enlisting Hollywood in using media to educate children, we had a chance to learn from the brilliant work that was on display — from the remarkable contributions of animators like Don Hahn (Beauty and the Beast, Lion King) to Marcy Carsey (Cosby Show, Roseanne) to Doug Wick (Gladiators, Stuart Little) to Peter Guber (Mandalay Bay Entertainment) to the Story Pirates (a great troupe of improv artists who act out young children’s stories).

Hollywood is already putting its characters and stories on each and every device, especially as appointment viewing (e.g. “Tune in at 8 PM”) gives way to on-demand entertainment. The challenge before us is to enlist Hollywood’s wildly successful creators who regularly engage millions and millions through great storytelling into our efforts to make modern technology part and parcel of a child’s educational growth. We need to persuade the public of the enormous possibilities here in education, especially in light of the enormous challenges facing our nation’s classrooms. Recent research from Frameworks Institute shared at the Forum demonstrated a gap still remains — we are not doing a great job at explaining the value of digital technology as a positive transformation agent for all learners, young and old.

This is what makes events like the Cooney Center Forum so incredibly important. Gathering leaders from across sectors — technology, entertainment, academia, etc. — is the first step toward working together to break old habits and find new ways toward promoting reading, digital literacy, and a STEM curriculum. The action teams pieced together, now in seven cities, will ensure that the Forum’s momentum will continue forward. It’s an important start to accomplishing an important goal

We are honored to have a small part in leading the way.

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