Kate Vidinsky, M.A.
Communications Director, Tales Untold Media
San Anselmo, California
My first childhood home was a tidy ranch on a flat, tree-lined street in a quiet Northwest Indiana suburb. Beyond that, my memories of the house are murky. And yet, clear as day, I can picture myself crouched in the basement next to my sister, listening intently as stories spun on our record player and my imagination took flight. I feel a shiver move up my spine as I recall the spooky tales we listened to around Halloween each year, and a warmth in my belly thinking about cozy story times with a side of Hanukkah cookies.
I know it’s cliché to say those were simpler times, but my goodness is it ever true. Today, like so many other parents of young children, I’m trying to strike the right balance between modern technology and the “good ole days.” All at once I feel immeasurably grateful for my iPhone, which enables my children to see their long-distance grandparents any time they’d like, and completely frustrated when I see so many eyes focused downward at mobile devices instead of outward at the world’s beauty.
It was this type of parent versus technology tug of war that inspired my husband Nick and me to begin producing podcasts for young children. We feel strongly that kids content doesn’t need to go a hundred miles an hour or shock a child’s senses into submission. It just needs to tell a good story.
During the last few years, podcasting as a medium has surged in popularity. According to a report from the Pew Research Center, the percentage of Americans who have listened to a podcast in the past month has nearly doubled since 2008, and one-third of Americans 12 years of age and older say they’ve listened to at least one podcast before.
Podcasts get straight to the essence of storytelling in an easy-to-use, on-demand format. And with their serial nature, characters can develop, learn and grow along with the audience. For families looking for ways to cut down on screen time while still embracing the power and convenience of today’s technology (and maybe even get some dishes washed or laundry folded in the process), podcasts are somewhat of a home run.
And while it’s not news that listening to stories read aloud aids in language development, recent research has helped pinpoint exactly what’s going on in children’s developing brains when they actively listen during story time. A study published in PEDIATRICS August 2015 used fMRI to observe brain activity in 3-to-5-year-olds as they listened to age-appropriate stories. The researchers found that the children’s brain activity differed according to how much they were read to at home.
Children whose parents reported reading more stories at home showed significantly more activity in the parietal-temporal-occipital association cortex, a hub of sorts in the brain’s left hemisphere that integrates sounds and visual stimulation. In other words, children who regularly practice the art of listening to stories are more adept at visualizing what they hear. Essentially, their brains are in better imaginative shape.
The take home here is we now know for certain that actively listening to stories – as opposed to watching videos or even following along with picture books – increases brain activity, improves the imagination and prepares children for literacy.
Our audio-only podcast app for kids, Tales Untold, is a model for how we can leverage technology to provide children with rich, imaginative experiences, rather than simply plugging them into screens. For when we show children a world, they are outsiders looking in with imaginations gone quiet. But when we encourage them to flex their imaginations while actively listening, they are drawn into their own creation.
Whether it be as an alternative to television in a pediatrician’s waiting room or as a way to cut down on the “are we there yets?” during a family road trip, podcasts are a brain-healthy brand of kid entertainment primed to take off in popularity. I strongly suggest giving them a listen.