Stories: a safe place to learn

A sandpit is a safe space for children to play in. It’s delineated from the surrounding area by a wooden border. Children quickly realise it’s a friendly space where they can play, and use their imagination. They can make shapes in the sand: buildings, animals, monsters, boundaries, walls, and holes. They can use it as a backdrop for other toys.

Once inside the sandpit, they know they’re in an area designated for play. The children can play on their own, or with other children. They can enjoy their own scenario, play along with another child’s scenario, or combine different scenarios into a larger, remixed story.

These sandpit play scenarios are simple stories. The child, make-believing themselves as a fictional character, physically interacts with the sand, toys and props. Toys and props become a metaphorical extension of the child, their ego, their desires, emotions, and fears.

Because the sandpit is a safe zone, children can freely invent play scenarios, interact with one another through games, and learn from those experiences. If a sandpit feels unsafe, the children would be too anxious to play—and to learn. Children learn best when they are relaxed, and can open their minds to the learning process, without worrying about threats to their wellbeing.

A fictional story is much like a child’s sandpit. It is a known space where we can observe characters interacting with one another, see them coping with challenges, and learn from this. It’s fascinating for us because we use the experience to hone our skills of pattern recognition, analysing sequences of action and reaction, judgement and consequence. We can assess the performance of these make-believe peers, without putting ourselves in physical danger. Stories are more sophisticated versions of the play scenarios children invent in sandpits. When we watch a film, or read a book, we are in a safe place — we can learn without the fear of getting hurt.

Believability is a necessary ingredient for stories to work on us. Films have to be a believable simulation of reality — even tough it is a simulation. It’s important to point out, if it was real it would be a documentary. There’s a difference. A battle scene is a simulation — people are not actually killed. The fact that we know that makes it safe. A love scene is simulated love and sex — it’s not real. If a battle scene showed real people being killed, it would, by it’s very nature, be a documentary record. If a romantic scene depicts real sex it would, by it’s very nature, be documentary record, or to give it another name: pornography.

Toys in a sandpit play scenario stand in as make-believe representations of characters, people, feelings, and ideas. Likewise, actors portray fictional characters — they mimic reality.

To attract and maintain our attention — to be believable — stories have to be sufficiently realistic. While we are free to empathise, and feel emotions — to feel involved in the story — we are always safe from danger. To ensure it is a safe environment, societies restrict children from seeing films with adult themes.

Stories allow us to experience the world from different perspectives. We get to explore social taboos, or uncomfortable situations. We use stories to deal with scary events, or things we cannot comprehend. They open us up to new experiences, help us to replay emotions in a controlled way, and learn new things about ourselves and the world around us.

Categories Writing

Adrian Graham blogs and writes fiction. He’s studying for an MA in Creative Writing.