How does listening to a story shape and develop a child's brain?
I met Nick Vidinsky, CEO of Tales Untold and SCBWI member, at a SCBWI meeting in California and was fascinated by the research and impact of audio books on the child’s developing mind. We got Nick in for a Q&A to find out more.
Tales Untold Media is based in the San Francisco Bay Area and provides customized podcasting solutions to individuals and organizations–from concept to production to publishing and distribution, and everything in between. Tales Untold Media also proudly produces the Tales Untold app: featuring original episodic audio stories for young children. Think podcasts for kids.
With Tales Untold we aren't hiding from the fact that mobile devices are as useful as they are ubiquitous. But just as a Swiss Army Knife can do more than whittle sticks, your smartphone's usefulness isn't limited to its screen.
What benefits are there for children to listen and follow an audio story?
The act of listening is at once a communal and intimate experience. It feels like the person on the other side of the microphone is talking directly to you, and there’s a whole world of people out there who are sharing that same experience. It’s why radio (and now podcasting) is so powerful.
Listening is also an active experience, as you’re continuously visualizing your own images to accompany the words you’re hearing. Visual storytelling, on the other hand, can be a passive experience for the viewer. Even with a picture book, the imagery is provided for the child to absorb.
Scientifically speaking, there are some exciting new findings that show the cognitive benefits of listening for young children, as well. It’s not news that listening to stories read aloud aids in language development. But a couple of new studies shed light on exactly what’s going on in those little brains when they are listening.
A study published in the journal Pediatrics in 2015 looked at brain activity among 3-to-5-year-olds as they listened to stories read aloud. The researchers noted two important findings:
- A certain part of the brain that integrates sound and visual stimulation lit up when these kids listened to stories. In other words, their brains began visualizing what they were hearing. (e.g., Don’t think about pink elephants.)
- That brain activity while listening was higher among kids who are read aloud to more often in their regular life. In other words, the more often they listen to stories, the better imaginative shape their brains are in.
A second study published in 2015, this one in Psychological Science, shows that reading aloud to preliterate children exposes them to words they don’t hear in regular everyday conversation.
So, to combine the takeaway from those two studies: when kids listen to stories, they’re learning new words AND learning how to visualize what those words represent, all at the same time.
To deprive them of that experience is perhaps stifling to the child’s creativity. As Dr. John S. Hutton, the lead author of the first study, stated in The New York Times:
“When we show them a video of a story, do we short circuit that process a little? Are we taking that job away from them? They’re not having to imagine the story; it’s just being fed to them.”
You have a recent medical deal – can you tell us a little bit about that and the research surrounding the developing brain of children and story-telling?
We’ve been fortunate to partner with a local pediatrician office in our area that understands the cognitive benefits of audio. With them, we’ve developed a Listening Kit program in which we provide organizations with self-contained kits (kid-friendly headphones and an iPod Touch that’s limited to the Tales Untold app). The obvious use is in the waiting room, where preliterate kids can keep themselves engaged without a TV overhead, while Mom or Dad fills out paperwork, talks with the nurse, etc.
But interestingly, the pediatricians have found success in bringing the kits into the examination rooms. They help relax the children in an otherwise stressful environment, and distract them during immunization shots, physical exams, etc.
|Untold Tales App|
Do you write the tales yourself? What process do the stories go through from submission to production?
We write and produce all of our content in-house. I personally write some of our scripts, along with our writers. In sourcing writers for our tales, I’ve purposefully sought those with experience writing for broadcast (radio and TV) or even marketing communications. The idea being that this type of script writing requires concise, evocative language that paints a picture in our young listeners’ minds.
In our initial phase, we’ve developed all storylines in house, but we are now beginning to pursue submissions from writers with their own ideas that would translate well to serialized audio tales. For details on submissions, interested writers can reference our website:
Do you believe there is a difference in the type of story that suits an audio recording? Is the voice and pace particularly important or is a great story just a great story in your opinion?
I think at its essence, a great story is a great story. But how that story can be told is completely dependent upon the medium.
As I mentioned earlier, writing for audio requires being highly descriptive, yet concise. When a parent is reading aloud and the child doesn’t quite understand a sentence or concept, the parent can just back up and reread that section. Audio is more temporal–the moment comes and goes–and while you can technically jump back a few seconds and listen again, it’s disruptive to the experience. So we want to make sure that our sentence structure is simple enough that the intent is communicated the first time through.
That said, kids’ listening comprehension is typically 2-3 grade levels above their reading level, so we do have some leeway in terms of bringing more complexity and nuance to the writing. We also anticipate that children will want to listen to each episode multiple times, so it’s nice to have layers that they will uncover through repeated listening. And with the serialized nature of our tales, we can increase the complexity as our characters (and our listeners) mature.
Pacing is important to us. While we want to avoid the manic feel of TV shows that go a million miles per hour, we do recognize that kids expect action and resolution. So we try to keep the pace moving along fairly rapidly. We want action that the listener can picture in his/her head. Introspection is important, but it’s when things are happening that you see that far-off look in the child’s eyes as his/her focus is turned inward.
Voice is an area where I’d like to really start stretching boundaries. Quite literally, there’s a voice talking to the listener, and the role of the narrator varies among our tales–first-person, third-person omniscient, third-person limited, etc.–but I would love to play with this further. It’s not the child’s parent to whom they’re listening, so they inherently perceive that voice as a character. There’s a lot of room here for some experimentation, and I’m excited to see where it takes us.
What’s next for Tales Untold? Who knows?
That’s the exciting part about it all. We’re focused now on trying to grow our audience. I’d love to expand our Listening Kit program. We can even develop customized co-branded versions of the app for partners such as pediatricians, hospitals, libraries, etc. And we’ve got more seasons of our existing tales–along with brand new tales–in production now. I would love to see our community continue to expand, and for our young listeners to grow up along with our characters.
Tales Untold leverages the power and convenience of today's technology to deliver a storytelling experience that is as old as language itself.