Samsung recently announced the upcoming release of a new app for it's Gear virtual reality headset called Bedtime VR Stories. The gist: Kids can strap on the visor and, through the app, immerse themselves in the colorful world of the story where effervescent cartoon companions lead them through the adventure and text appears. If mom or dad is away, he or she can join in on the story, too, appearing as a floating head within the virtual world. Nothing says bedtime quite like thrusting a kid into a virtual world.
Now, we don't have any idea what Samsung's virtual storytime will really be like but, given the ill-effects of blue light and the stimulating nature of electronics in general, we can only surmise that it doesn't really offer a peak ticket on the dreamland express. And while it's sweet to think that far-away parents can still feel connected to children through the setup, it's merely another example of technology encroaching on parts of our lives where it's not needed. More importantly, transforming the bedtime story into a virtual task takes way from one a core childhood rituals, one that plays a key role in the development of crucial mental and emotional functions.
The seemingly small, routine activities we did have a big impact on the type of people we are today. Think about it: how often does Dr. Suess captioned Instagram post send you back? Before you know it, you’re whisked back to your room, dimly lit by a nightlight, fighting to stay awake amidst your pile of stuffed animals as your mother does her best impression of Thing 1 and Thing 2.
Listening to bedtime stories enforces core skills, namely vocabulary and comprehension. This helps in school and in life. Children who are read to on a regular basis are better able to voice their wants and desires as well as understand the world around them more clearly.
In a study reported by Psychological Science that examined the neurological effects of reading to children, researchers noted the relationship between the amount of reading happening at home and brain activity in preschool children. The researchers found that more exposure to reading was correlated with neural activation in the area of the brain that is known as a hub for language processing, mental imagery and narrative comprehension.
And hearing a story does more than merely stimulate the brain. As Patti Jones points out in her article, “The Brainy Benefits of Bedtime Stories,” the act of reading to kids allows them to visualize and understand in a way that talking doesn’t.
“In time, reading with a child will expand her vocabulary even more than just talking with her will,” she writes. “That's because books can introduce kids to ideas and objects — such as porridge or kangaroos — that are out of their direct environment and therefore not a part of their daily conversation.”
Additionally, hearing tales allow kids to expand their imagination. When a child listens to a story, she begins to pick up on certain themes. She recognizes words, and creates imagery in her mind to help make sense of the tale at hand. If she’s listening to Peter Rabbit with dad, she might be looking at the still images of the bushy-taled creature running, and can form an association between the word ‘run’ and the actual task of running. When they hear a story, hildren are required to craft their own mental images, instead of having them fed to them through a screen.
Although there is not currently a study to prove it, neuroscientists have speculated that the comfort of being read to leads to the lowering of cortisol levels in a child’s brain, which then helps reduce stress. We adults remember childhood as recess and sliced celery with peanut butter and raisins and tend to forget about the overwhelming pressures of the playground, the undeniable desire to fit in, the fear of being bullied. Bedtime stories offer an escape from that, and a ritual to fall back on. The world may be a strange, inconsistent place, but every night mom and dad read to you before you go to sleep.
Remembering The Lorax? Of course you do. Because he was in a story you loved. And you loved it because it felt like you owned it, because you stitched together an imaginary world. You created it. It wasn't served to you. And the benefits are still paying off.