Storytelling From the Heart: How Science is Confirming What Librarians Already Knew.

The time for tellings stories at the library has arrived.  A group of young children and their caretakers gather at your feet. You break into a welcoming jingle, and young eyes eagerly turn in your direction. As you move from story, to finger-play, to song, things seem to flow.

The energy builds as you feed off of each other’s spontaneous and heartfelt laughter. When you finish the venue, some of the children eagerly seek you out to thank you for the stories, or to offer a picture that they just drew. Some may even offer a heartfelt hug. Everyone there knows that magic was truly in the air.

Contrast that with story-times where one child begins to cry and then suddenly you have a cacophony of discordant wails filling the air; or where a child, perhaps feeling the need to be particularly disagreeable, continually disrupts the flow of the stories. Then we encounter a very different type of collective experience.

Creating Better Story-Times

The energy in our story-times often differs widely–in spite of our best efforts. We want to create the magic with our words and songs where the minutes flow with laughter; yet depending on given group dynamics, we sometimes struggle to keep the attention and emotional energy focused in the direction that will create an optimal learning experience for all. Yet, we all know that there are story-times that seem to magically transcend the mundane. Just how can we more consciously create the magic that is mirrored in these exceptional story-times?

The Matter of Heart

I suggest that there is an important, though often overlooked component which contributes to creating meaningful learning experiences for children and their parents. In addition to the verbal and nonverbal mechanisms utilized in successful story-time presentations, focusing on the type of emotions and energies we project can enhance our abilities to truly touch our constituents in meaningful ways. Recent scientific studies on heart energy offer some illuminating insights on this subject.

Did you know that research from the Heartmath Institute has determined that the heart’s electromagnetic field literally “transmits information between people” and that  there is an underlying energetic communication that operates just below our conscious awareness? Heartmath experiments have led scientists to infer that our nervous system acts as a type of biological antenna that is “tuned to and responds to the electromagnetic fields” emanating from the hearts of others. We literally communicate with each other through our hearts.

Their findings also tell us that the magnetic component coming from the heart is 5,000 times stronger than that which is produced from the brain (Mccraty). Other research has determined that our heart has its own brain center, consisting of approximately 40,000 neurons, which acts independently of the brain housed inside of our skulls. This physical communication structure allows the heart to actually “learn, remember…feel and sense” (“The Heart Brain”). In turn, Heartmath research has determined that our hearts send “more information to the brain, than the brain sends to the heart” (“An Appreciative Heart is Good Medicine”).

The Application

The communicative energy within our hearts is real. We know it. We’ve felt it. We’ve seen how it affects ourselves and those around us. So why is this important to what we do as early learning facilitators? Just how how can we use this new understanding of a powerful resource to enhance our storytelling?

In our story-times, we try to create learning-rich experiences that nurture and encourage each child’s exploration of their world. In the story-time setting, we strive to present an atmosphere of unconditional acceptance geared towards each child’s optimal development. In our time together in sharing stories, we emphasize that there is no such thing as a wrong answer, and we focus on creating an experience where exploration and learning can be both nurturing and fun.

Unconditional Acceptance

This nurturing and nonjudgmental element is key to utilizing the heart resource. Why? Because the types of emotions we nurture in our storytelling have a direct effect on our bodies and on how we learn. We are more apt to learn when we feel we are in a safe environment, and where a level of predictably mixed with moderate stimulation exists.

Research supports that our emotions can literally affect the emotional responses of others. Now, let’s take a look at how our hearts respond to different emotions.

Heart Research Revealed

When we experience feelings of frustration or anger, our heart rhythms become jagged and erratic and our bodies respond with higher levels of stress. By contrast, when we experience feelings of love, care, appreciation, and compassion, our heart rhythms take on a smooth, ordered, consistent nature and look similar to “gently rolling hills” (“An appreciative Heart is Good Medicine”).

In our story-times, where we seek to evoke positive emotions, this in turn helps to create a safe learning environment. When we emanate emotions of love and acceptance, the body’s systems respond by acting with “greater efficiency and harmony,” and psychologically with  “enhanced mental clarity” and “cognitive performance” (McCraty).

Heart to Heart

Just how does our emotional state as story-time facilitators influence those who gather around us? How can it enhance learning? Heartmath research has shown that when a person emanates a coherent heart rhythm–one that is based on love and acceptance–there is a greater likelihood that the recipient’s heartbeat will synchronize with the facilitator’s brain waves.

A definitive interaction and response exists between the electromagnetic heart-fields of individuals. The researchers infer that this ability to exchange energetic communication is innate. It likewise increases awareness and affects our ability to “mediate” genuine empathy and sensitivity to those around us. More importantly, in the context that we are visiting today, researchers have found that this “energetic communication ability” can be “intentionally enhanced” with the result of “a much deeper level of nonverbal communication, understanding, and connection between people” (17).

Where Do We Go From Here?

Although research on this subject is just beginning to touch on the topic, it has fascinating implications for how we as early learning facilitators can make a simple, yet conscious choice to further enhance the learning of those who we serve. By understanding that emotions like fear and frustration impede a coherent heart rhythm, it motivates us to set aside those elements which may sometimes get in the way of creating great story-times.

For example, when storytellers are new to the craft, we often worry that our performance will be less than perfect, or perhaps that our presentation may not meet the expectations of the children’s parents or of our administrators. As such, we tend to fixate on performing flawless story-time mechanics to the point where it can impede our ability to spontaneously and lovingly interact with the children.

When we realize, however, that these fear-based elements likely disrupt our own ability to maintain a love-based heart rhythm, thus impeding our ability to optimally communicate with others, and in turn, potentially impacting the children’s best learning experience; it may motivate us to put the limiting emotions behind us, to be less concerned about fixating on performing perfect mechanics; and instead, to relax into a state where it is easier to focus on creating joy in the moment with the children.

Heart-based Preparation

Understanding that the energy of love and acceptance enhances learning may likewise behoove us to set aside a few minutes before we work with a group to consciously create a coherency rhythm in our own hearts. The Heartmath team suggests a simple breathing exercise, akin to a form of Buddhist meditation that encourages the creation of this optimal state (See McCraty).

I’ve found the following adaptation to be quite effective: Make sure that you feel your feet touching the ground, and then think of someone or something that you deeply love. Then, take deep breaths and imagine that you are breathing in the love and gratitude that you feel for them through your chest or heart area. Without forcing anything, let the love energy sink into and fill your belly. As you breathe in this love energy, allow it to continue to flow through you and to fill your entire body, and then to extend to the energy around you. Notice how your energy changes to one of peace and calm. That’s all there is to it.

Heart Matters

By seeking to approach our story-times from the perspective of holding love and acceptance in our hearts, we potentially enhance the experience for all who participate in the event. By generating coherent heart rhythms, we communicate electromagnetically to children that it is a safe and comfortable place to learn.

I conjecture that most of us who love little kid energy, and who enjoy providing opportunities to facilitate their healthy development, have understood this on a deep level, even though until now, science has not explained why this is important.  After all, the optimal energy that we try to establish in our story-times settings is one of love and acceptance. It is magic in the moment. What a wonderful gift to mirror back to the precious children who make up our communities!

“An Appreciative Heart is Good Medicine.” web. 4/15/2010
“The ‘Heart Brain.’” 9-11-2010 Web. 9/16/2010,
Mccraty, Rollin. “The Resonant Heart.” The Science of Fields, issue #05/ Shift: At the Frontiers of Consciousness, pp. 15-19 Dec 2004-Feb 2005. web. 04/15/2010.

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