Autumn and Reading

Time drops in decay
Like a candle burnt out.
And the mountains and woods
Have their day, have their day:
But, kindly old rout
Of the fire-born moods,
You pass not away.

W.B Yeats, The Celtic Twilight: Faerie and Folklore (1893)

It was wonderful to have the opportunity, over half term, to spend a relaxing week with our family in the west of Ireland. Whether feeding cattle on my wife’s family farm or taking long walks through the autumnal magnificence of Coole Park, there was plenty of time for meaningful reflection. The wild beauty of the Burren (a rocky outcrop formed in the last ice age) and the spectacular sight of swans gracefully gliding by on the shimmering waters of Coole Lake inspires a sense of nostalgia but it also serves to sharpen one’s critical faculties and prepare for the challenges that lie ahead. It is a place refreshingly free from the immediate burdens of daily life. This is the landscape which inspired W. B. Yeats to write some of his very finest poetry.

Nothing remains of the grand old house that once sat in Coole Park, but it was owned by Lady Gregory (1852-1932), the formidable Irish dramatist who did so much to forge a nascent sense of cultural nationalism in Ireland. She was responsible for the Gaelic literary revival and the foundation of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. At Coole, she gathered around her an extraordinary group of poets, playwrights and authors, which included W.B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Sean O’Casey and the first president of Ireland, Douglas Hyde. Around the turn of the twentieth century and on the eve of the formation of the Irish state, these figures would visit Coole for extended stays. Here in the stillness of this remote corner of southern Galway, a literary revival of immense significance gradually took form.

At the heart of this revival was an obsession with the mythical and mystical past of the land and its people. A past populated by fairies and rich in fantastical folk beliefs was explored in some length by W.B. Yeats’ all but forgotten work The Celtic Twilight. This work serves as an extraordinary compendium of rural folklore and yet, despite the passage of time, many of the places which Yeats writes about have changed remarkably little. Sometimes we take our children to walk along forgotten paths running by hidden brooks or we explore the ruins of the ancient mill and cottages behind Thor Ballylee. As we do so, we reflect on some of the ancient folk tales associated with these places. Why do we do this? I think that inspiring a love of storytelling is one of the best gifts that we can bestow upon our children. Engaging in a world of abstract ideas and daring to imagine a place where the impossible is possible is utterly rewarding and yet there is a real danger that children growing up in the digital age of the twenty-first century will lose their ability to dream or the desire to engage in a make-believe world not driven by digital technology.

I am a great believer in the power of digital technology to enhance teaching and learning but we must guard against allowing our children to become enslaved by devices that stunt their ability to enjoy the natural world and the sheer joy of playing in a context which promotes their ability to tell stories and connect to worlds beyond the temporal. If the first question your child asks, upon entering a friend’s house, is ‘what is the wifi code?’ then that is a warning sign that something is potentially missing. That something is the ability to be entirely content when unencumbered by digital devices.

If children enjoy storytelling then it stands to reason that they will develop an authentic enjoyment of reading. Curling up on a beanbag and losing yourself in a book should be one of the principle pleasures of childhood. Countless studies demonstrate that reading promotes cognitive development. Dr Alice Sullivan writes:

We compared children from the same social backgrounds who achieved similar tested abilities at ages five and 10, and discovered that those who frequently read books at age 10 and more than once a week when they were 16 had higher test results than those who read less. In other words, reading for pleasure was linked to greater intellectual progress, both in vocabulary, spelling and mathematics. In fact, the impact was around four times greater than that of having a parent with a post-secondary degree.
The Guardian, Monday, 16th September, 2013

I would implore all parents to do everything within their power to encourage their children to read. When children are very young this means not only reading with them but talking to them about the stories that they enjoy. We will, in the fullness of times, reissue age specific reading lists but in the meantime a good starting point is Julia Eccleshare’s 1001 Children’s Books You Must Read Before You Grow up. This book includes works of fantasy, adventure, history, love, loss, contemporary life and much more besides. Leafing through this book will help reconnect you to the worlds of Narnia, Middle Earth and Alice in Wonderland. My personal favourites – well it changes almost daily but, right now, Teigan (aged 20 months) and I are enjoying Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

And….

Children realise their full potential when teaching and learning takes place within the context of a strong partnership between home and school. Encouraging our children to read and engage in the world of fiction is just one area where we should work together incredibly closely.

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