Let children read fiction to boost creativity, improve analytical skills
An old Nairobi joke has it that if you want to leave some cash in a packed house and still find it there after a week or so, just put it between the pages of a book.
The joke is meant to parody Kenyans’ aversion to reading – unless, of course, there is an exam.
And just as we teach our children to guzzle beer by the crate – by taking them to a bar every Sunday in the name of a family day out – we are spreading our phobia for reading to the little ones through some very unhealthy habits.
So when a junior turns five, instead of getting him a good storybook to hone his reading/writing skills and impart to him a reading culture from early on, we buy them electronic gadgets. Or pizza. Such gadgets keep them curled on settees during school holidays, when they are ideally supposed to be out there playing and just being children.
So, while they have our genes, their childhood is so sedentary it’s a health scare.
As someone who grew up in the village, I really feel for the modern African child, especially in urban areas where politicians and former ‘kanjoras’ long grabbed every space where children would be playing today.
It’s sad that, mischievous as we may have been, these digital children will never know the thrill of growing up in the Africa of yore.
Riddles and folktales
Say whatever you will, we learnt a lot playing balls fashioned from waste paper bags and sisal strings, or swimming sometimes in swollen rivers. Or regaling one another with tales told to us by our grandparents or parents. No, I’m not suggesting that the KFC generation should start swimming in rivers, or reviving riddles and folktales about animals that are no longer in abundance around them as they were in our childhood.
My grouse here is about creative stories. Ever since the British colonialists set foot in East Africa at the turn of the 19th Century, our fireside stories – and oral tradition gems – have been replaced by written works.
This means where our fathers and mothers huddled around the evening fire to be told moving stories by their grandparents, the post-colonial classroom extolled the virtues of reading out good stories to our children before they sleep. Which very few do.
So now we have a whole generation growing up in public schools and homes with no storybooks or other works of fiction. This is because the Ministry of Education has been telling parents not to buy books because the government has bought them for schools.
Yet, all the government buys are course books, teacher’s guides and – in the next few days – Form Four set books.
So, from Early Childhood Development Education (ECDE) level, where children should start reading picture books, all the way to Form Three, they are supposed to live without creative works. This means by the time they are introduced to Shakespeare or Faulkner at Form Four, they have no idea what literary appreciation is and are, therefore, unlikely to have developed any liking for literature.
And even at Form Four, as a recent Daily Nation report indicated, the kind of set books they are required to read are no longer selected based on literary richness in terms of strong themes, stylistic finesse or even juiciness of the plot.
Ladies and gentlemen, in the year of our Lord 2021, the government has decided to select set books based on the lowest quoted price. As an author, literature buff and experienced publishing editor, I do not know what can be more atrocious.
This cavalier attitude to the primacy of creative works in learning flies in the face of the research finding that, just as the human body needs exercises, reading fiction is a mind gym of sorts.
No language-boosting fiction
And not just for sport. Experts say a reading habit, besides expanding children’s vocabulary in a country where many flunk exams because teaching is done in a foreign language (English) that they don’t understand, reading sharpens the mind.
It prevents the onset of conditions such as dementia or Alzheimer’s. Reading good works is entertaining, boosts memory, relaxes the mind and boosts creativity.
People who read for life – and not for exams – have also been found to have more analytical and critical minds. Of course, if parents and government bought creative works for children, writers would lead better lives – I hear we, poor souls, wear a lot of black – and inspire future writers.
I need not explain how a few extra coins would be beneficial to an economy already gasping for jobs. So, as the government prepares to announce set books based on price to a generation fed on sciences and humanities and no language-boosting fiction, let’s spare a thought for that future writer whose talent is in limbo because, to the bean counters in government, a good education is one huge cost to be slashed and not an investment.