the best stories have alligators

I’m fascinated. In researching for an annotated bibliography on games and play theory, I came across an article about the development of storytelling skills in very young children. The major focus of it is the effect that props have on the stories; children tend to tell better stories when they have figures in their hands than without, likely because they think more about characters than event sequences. But the really interesting part was where the researchers tested the effects of different kinds of figures.

Given a set of an adult male, an adult female, a boy, a girl, a baby, and a dog, most of the children (who were four years of age) told rambling non-stories where nothing actually happened. In those few instances where something happened, it was a lack/lack liquidated dyad, having to do with a breach of the natural order (e.g. an abandoned baby wandering around looking for parents to care for it). That was the first half of the experiment.

In the second half of the experiment, they replaced the dog with an alligator.

And you know what? The stories got better.

Seriously. The stories became structurally more complex, by a significant amount; stuff happened, instead of the four-year-old simply naming off who each figure was. Probably not coincidentally, villainy/villainy nullified also popped up far more frequently as a narrative dyad. Basically, it seems that children tell more interesting stories about things that aren’t normal (including things like the abandoned baby). In other words, to display my fantasy-writer chauvinism for a moment, normalcy is boring. Alligators are cool.

(The girls also performed statistically better than the boys, in terms of length, content, and complexity. Interesting.)

So the moral we should all take away from this is that when you buy small children toys, be sure to purchase them alligators and space-men and flying horses and dinosaurs along with the Barbies and the G.I. Joes. Their cognitive development will thank you.

0 Responses to “the best stories have alligators”

  1. cheshyre

    That sounds fascinating!
    Do you have a link (or citation) for the study?

  2. deedop

    Ah, that reminds me of my best improv classes. Whenever we had one or two kids in the group that thought of alligators instead of puppies, the creativity of the whole class went up a few notches. Man, those kids could create some crazy theater.

  3. lowellboyslash

    That’s awesome.

    What does it say about me that I grew up telling stories about paperclips and erasers?

  4. moonandserpent

    “Normalcy is boring. Alligators are cool.”

    Get thee to a t-shirt!

  5. just_not_right

    quote: (The girls also performed statistically better than the boys, in terms of length, content, and complexity. Interesting.)

    Without seeing the statistics, I would guess that this has more to do with developmental progress in verbal ability for girls/boys at the specific age, especially considering cultural bias tendencies for gender roles.

  6. princess706

    alligators = land dragons

    Well, of COURSE they did.


  7. delkytlar

    When my children were around four-or-so, they had a story-telling board game. As a player moved around the board, you had to pick plastic creatures out of a bag (or give them back, or trade them, depending on the type of space you landed on). The creatures included all sorts of farm and jungle animals, as well as sea creatures, snakes and insects.

    When you had three or more creatures, and landed on a Setting space (a picture of a farm, a school, a house, or someplace else I can’t recall at the moment), you had to tell a story using that Setting and all of the creatures you had accumulated. The winner was the first person to tell original stories in all four Settings.

    My children used to play that game all the time. I was amazed that their stories were rarely repetitive, and at how creative they would be to figure a way to work a whale, a zebra and a spider into a school Setting.

  8. unforth

    What an interesting study…it’s amazing the kinds of things kids can come up with you give them a chance – what makes me sad is that so often these days (okay, probably through most of history…), parents don’t give their kids the chance to express and explore their creativity…sigh…

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