Everyone has a favourite bedtime story, right? In most cultures around the world people will tell their children stories before it is time to switch the lights off. Where does this tradition come from? Does it help children to actually fall asleep? Is it a waste of time to tell or read bedtime stories? Join us as we journey into the past on this first day of the year. Take a couple of minutes to delve into the history of storytelling and learn about the fascinating world of some of the most famous bedtime story writers!
History of Storytelling
Before people knew how to read or write, they had no other form of communication than the spoken word. The first form of writing was invented by the Sumerians round about 3300 BC, according to National Geographic’s Atlas of the Ancient World. That is more than 5000 years ago – quite a while, wouldn’t you say? This ancient form of writing is known as cuneiform, which basically translates to wedge or wedge shaped. They probably named it cuneiform because of the array of wedge shaped reeds that was used to make markings on clay. The Sumerians developed this style of writing to record business transactions, but the basic wedge imprints in clay balls soon evolved into something more. Symbols were combined to form words and later on these pictographs (words) were merged together to form syllables.
But you are not here to read about the origin of writing, right? Let us get back to what is important; storytelling!
Listen to this, or well… read this. If you think 5000 years is a long time ago, you are in for a surprise. Australian Aborigines have been passing on their Dreamtime stories approximately 10 000 years! That is twice as long as the most ancient form of writing. And this writing we are talking about is not really storytelling, it is just transactional writing. Students of history and literature believe that the first written story is the Epic of Gilgamesh, which was written on clay tablets at around 2000 BC.
If you compare 10 000 year old oral stories to 4000 year old written stories, you can see that storytelling is old. So old in fact, that it is considered as one of the oldest art forms on the planet.
Fact or Fiction?
How do we know that the Aborigines’ stories are really that old? Is there any scientific proof that they’ve been around for such a long period of time? Actually there is. Palaeontologists and geologists proved that some of the places mentioned in these stories existed 10 000 years ago. These locations are now under the sea, but long ago some of the volcanic craters described by the Dreamtime stories weren’t submerged. There is more proof, but we won’t bore you with scientific findings about fossilised spores and so on.
Let’s just agree that telling bedtime stories might be a tremendously old tradition.
Benefits of Bedtime Stories
Telling bedtime stories forms part of many households’ bedtime preparations. Most bedtime stories contain some element of fiction, but not all of them. A defining character of bedtime stories is that the story contains some form of moral lesson. Whether the characters are imaginary, from the animal kingdom or human, they almost always showcase some good behavioural trait.
According to researchers, reading bedtime stories to your children plays an important role in their mental and emotional development. Apart from helping them improve their vocabulary, the fixed routine of hearing a bedtime story every night will enforce healthy sleeping patterns.
Young children (under five years of age) that have a good daily sleep routine are less likely to develop emotional problems later on in their lives. So creating a healthy and regular sleep environment for your child is essential for their future well-being. Not a fan of storytelling? Maybe you should visit your paediatrician or occupational therapist to find out about the benefits of reading to your toddler.
How to Structure a Sleep Inducing Bedtime Story
Swedish psychologist and author, Carl-Johan Forssén Ehrlin has some very interesting ideas when it comes to bedtime stories. He published a couple of children’s bedtime stories and with each story comes a set of instructions. Carl-Johan believes that, when putting your child to bed, storytelling is just as important as the story itself.
According to him, a good bedtime story must focus on sleep, instead of some random ideology or moral lesson. Sure, the story can contain moral lessons as well, but that must not be the main theme of the story. The theme should be centred on sleep and sleep related subjects. Try to think back to when you were a child, playing out some fantasy or the other. Somehow during your fantastic game there would always be an imaginary lunch time (well, my make belief stories always involved one meal or another). Not long after you acted out eating your imaginary stuffed chicken or a roast wild boar you would actually become hungry, or was it just me? Well this storytelling works on that same principle. Imaginary food leads to actual hunger. Likewise imaginary sleep leads to actual sleepiness. Cool, huh?
How to Narrate
The other part of his research and method is just as compelling. Mr Forssén Ehrlin claims that peaking to the child’s subconscious as you read to him or her is an important aspect of storytelling. Therefore he advises parents to read his bedtime stories, or any bedtime story for that matter, slowly. He carries this theory even further and says that you should yawn at regular intervals during the narration. We all know that when one person in the room starts to yawn, the others will soon follow suit. Our psychologists plays on this effect to lull the child’s mind into believing that he or she is tired and must fall asleep soon. This is quite clever, if you ask me! Go ahead and give it a try next time you read your child a bedtime story. Just be careful not to nod off yourself…
Ancient (Bedtime?) Stories
Now that we have established that storytelling has been around for a couple of years, how to tell a story and what a effective bedtime story should contain… Let us try to find some of the old stories and see if they make the cut. I mean, if storytelling is so old, surely there must be some good old bedtime stories around?
Here are just some of the older stories that have been floating around for the last couple of millennia…
Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh
Believed to be the first great work of literature by many, the Epic of Gilgamesh was written in the Akkadian language around 2000 BC. This epic poem tells the story of Gilgamesh, king of Ur and of his travels and encounters. Like most epic poems and mythologies, there are some fantastical elements to the story. After his friend, Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh realises for the first time that death exists. He goes on a quest to conquer death, but in the end he has to accept that fact that, he too, will die.
Maybe the moral of this epic story is that everyone has to die? Do you think that makes for a good bedtime story? Personally I don’t think I’ll be reading the Epic of Gilgamesh to my children before I put them in bed…
Legendary Mayan Bedtime Stories
The Mayans have some stories and legends that date back to 3000 years ago and according to some scholars these stories were used as bedtime stories. One of these Mayan legends tells of a prince from Chichen Itza that fell in love with a princess from Mayapan. As with many of these sad love stories, the princess’ hand was already promised to someone else. The daring young prince decides to kidnap his beloved princess on her wedding day, after which her betrothed declares war on Chichen Itza. But when the betrothed and his armies pitch up at the gates of Chichen Itza they find it abandoned and dead. Some story!
Another story tells of a dwarf that became king of Uxmal by tricking the old king into killing himself. How lovely.
If you look at these stories, it is not too hard to wonder how or why the Mayan civilisation came to an end… Not bedtime material in my book, sorry.
I don’t know if you know your Greek or Roman mythologies? They are both quite similar, but for now, let us focus on the Greek stories. Characterised by stories of children (well known Greek gods such as Zeus) rebelling against their parents (less well known Greek gods like Zeus’ father, Cronus) and godlings leading immoral lives, this is not the type of thing I would want to read to my child before they go to bed. I mean, imprinting pictures of big people eating their babies is not a good way of sending your child off to dreamland.
For those of you that do not know what I am talking about, myth has it that Cronus ate his three sons; Zeus, Hades and Poseidon, because he was afraid that they might overthrow him. Zeus then devised a way to escape his father’s stomach and kill him, after which he and his brothers drew lots to decide who would be the next ruler of the Greek gods. To be honest, I do not see any moral to this story. It just gives me the chills!
A definite no-no on my list of future bedtime stories for my children.
Popular Bedtime Stories
At this stage you might wonder if we will ever get to the point of talking about actual bedtime stories. Well yes, we are. Seeing as we (I) do not think that it is a good idea to scare your child to sleep with bloodthirsty legends about betrayal and murder, it seems like a good plan to give you a list of properly structured bedtime stories.
Second in a series of three bedtime stories written by Margaret Wise Brown, this one is definitely a classic. Written as a rhyming poem, this little book is easy to read and the content is perfect for a bedtime story! The main character in this story is a little bunny-rabbit that says good night to everything in his room. Rhyming and saying goodnight… All you need is to add a yawn here and there and you will have your toddler drifting off to sleep in no time!
Be sure to check out the other two bedtime stories in the series; The Runaway Bunny and My World.
The Going to Bed Book
Colourful, funny and rhythmic. In The Going to Bed Book the author, Sandra Boynton, describes and depicts a bunch of animals that are preparing for bed. You do not need to be a rocket scientist to read or understand this bedtime story, but it is a great way of showing to your child that brushing your teeth before bed is not such a bad thing.
The Rabbit Who Wants to Fall Asleep
We mentioned Mr Carl-Johan Forssén Ehrlin earlier in this post. Author of The Rabbit Who Wants to Fall Asleep and The Little Elephant Who Wants to Fall Asleep. Both of there bedtime stories are about little animals and their respective journeys to dreamland. On their way to bed they encounter many interesting and wise characters and, as we explained already, narrating in a certain way aids in making your child sleepy.
If your toddler has problems falling asleep, these books are for you.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar
Eric Carle created a beautiful interactive night time story about a caterpillar that eats himself fat. Kids can play with various flaps in this book, which is great for fidgety toddler fingers. The book also helps children to learn the different days of the week.
Goodnight, Goodnight; Construction Site
An innocent bedtime story about all various construction vehicles getting ready for bed at a construction site. Sheri Duskey Rinker created the perfect environment for little ones to drift off to.
And Plenty More…
These are just a few of the hundreds of good bedtime stories out there. Please try to make time in your busy schedule to read to your child before bed. Instilling a love for reading in your child is one of the best things you will ever do.
I’m off to read my bedtime story now. Hope you do the same.