How Storytelling Can Change a Child’s Brain

What if we could improve our children’s brain and cognitive development by simply reading to them every day? In this episode of The Preschool Podcast, we connect with Drew Vernon, Marketing Director at Tonies US. Tonies has made reading easy with their Tonies Box, an imagination-building, screen-free digital listening experience that plays stories, songs, and more.

The Toniesbox is a great concept to encourage children to read and use their imagination more. A screenless box allows children to listen to stories and songs without adult supervision needed to operate, giving children more autonomy in their learning. By taking away the screen and visuals from a story, you allow children to use their own imagination during the story-telling experience to create the story as they want to allow them to exercise their creative muscles. This allows children to go from a consuming experience to a creating experience.

Benefits of Storytelling

Children Will Become More Engaging. By having children create their own stories through storytelling, they allow them to be more persuasive and convincing, two great life skills needed later in life. In order to captivate and convince your audience, you need to engage them. A great storyteller is an engaging one and when children practice this at a young age it carries on through ou their life.

Drew mentioned “The Hero’s Journey” in his interview. A commonly used theme in stories, books and, movies.

Better Understanding of The Hero’s Journey. This theme is commonly used in movies, books, tv, and stories. Broken down as such:

1. The hero has a problem

2. The hero overcomes a challenge

3. The hero gets a reward for overcoming this challenge.

When children understand this theme, they’re more likely to use this theme throughout their life, overcoming their problems.

Increased Language and Communication Skills. Storytelling is a great opportunity to increase children’s vocabulary and communication skills by modeling new words and proper sentence structure.

When you take away the visual stimulus, you’re putting that creative responsibility with the child to use their imagination to create the story

Drew Vernon, The Preschool Podcast

Want to implement a Toniesbox into your classroom or home? Listeners can get 15% off with coupon code: TONIEPODCAST

Drew recommends diving into the book “Story Mythos” by Shane Meeker to expand your professional development and to understand how to become a better storyteller.

Like the podcast? Check out more here!

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Episode 268 Transcripts-


The longer I spend working in the childhood space and with children, the more I just remember the awesome time that I had. And so I really try to channel that. And I’m looking for ways to improve the childhood experience, just to set kids up on the right path with the right tools so that they can become happy, functioning adults.


Drew, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!


Thank you. It’s great to be here!


Great to have you on the show, Drew. For our listeners today: we have with us Drew Vernon. He works at an organization called tonies®. And they have something called the Toniebox, which I’m going to be pretty interested to learn more about. But before we do that, Drew, let’s learn a little bit more about you. Tell us about yourself and how you ended up working at tonies® on the Toniebox.


Yeah, sure. So, I have a marketing background. I went to school for brand and product management. Coming out of school, I wanted to learn more from kind of the best marketing companies. [I] ended up going to P&G [Procter & Gamble], learned a lot of really great things, worked on some big beauty brands. And I did that for a few years. And I was learning a lot, but I wasn’t really having a whole lot of fun. I wanted to do something I was more naturally curious about.

And so I ended up taking a job with Lego and managed their preschool business for a few years. And it was during that time that I really became a fan of the toy industry and really of just improving the childhood experience and making play more prevalent and fun for kids.

And so I ended up starting my own daycare while I was at Lego and I learned a lot from that, as well. And then about six months ago, I came across this Toniebox and did some research on it, found out it came from Germany. It was starting to be really successful over there and they were looking to open the US market. So, I ended up coming over to the US team to help with that launch last year. And now I’m working as the marketing director for the US.


Okay, very cool. And [we] look forward to learning a little bit more about what that is. Before we do, one curveball question for you: I’m looking at your LinkedIn profile and in addition to your role as marketing director, you’ve put “former child”, which of course we all are. [We’re] curious to know why you decided to put that in your LinkedIn title.


Yeah, the longer I spend working in the childhood space and with children, the more I just remember the awesome time that I had and a lot of things that I just feel like I’ve lost as I’ve gotten older. And so I really try to channel that. And more importantly, for my kids and for other people’s kids, I’m looking for ways to improve the childhood experience, just to set kids up on the right path with the right tools so that they can become happy, functioning adults.


Yeah, I think it’s great. Sometimes we forget that we were children at one point, too. And we shouldn’t forget that as adults because play is important for everybody, no matter how old they are.

Okay, the Toniebox. Let’s learn a little bit more about what this is. We don’t oftentimes have guests on the Podcast who are here to talk about a product, like a physical product. So, this is kind of cool. So, tell us what it’s all about.


Yeah, as I mentioned, I was working at Lego, I came across this. And to me, this is more than, like, a product, just because through owning a daycare and some of the programs that I did at Lego, I really became an advocate, for like, I said, making childhood better. I really believe that the Toniebox does that.

So, what it is, is it’s a smart speaker for kids. It was started by a couple of dads over in Germany who met on the board of a preschool together. They noticed that their children’s teacher was using CD players in the classroom to play different songs and stories. And they looked at each other and they said, “Gosh, CD’s have been around forever. They scratch, they break. But most importantly, young children can’t operate them without adult supervision.”

So, they sought to kind of upgrade the CD player technology. And they created a figure-based system where you have these little action figures called Tonies that have a little chip inside of them so that when you place them on the speaker, called the Toniebox, they will play whatever they’re programed to play.

So, we have a variety of different characters. Some are from movie blockbusters, TV shows, also kind of your favorite literary characters. And we’re starting to get into the education space. But anything that can be delivered in an audio format can go on a Tonie. And it’s really great because the Toniebox itself is designed for kids. Kids as young as [age] three or younger can operate it without parent supervision.

And best of all, it doesn’t have a screen. So, screen time, as you know, is through the roof with the pandemic. This is something that’s very tactile. You place the Tonie on the box. It’s magnetic, it plays automatically. You can sort through the chapters or the tracks by giving it a whack on the side of the box. And so it’s a very fun, tactile experience for kids.


Yeah, it’s interesting you mention that because that was one of the first things that hit me as well, which is it strikes me as something as being fun and engaging for children but it’s not a screen. And so it’s unique in that way.

And you mentioned a little bit about why you decided to work on the Toniebox in your background and part of that being helping to enable children’s development. Can you talk a little bit about what some of the benefits are for young children using the Toniebox?


Yeah, I would say there are many benefits. So, I should mention a little bit more about the Tonies themselves. We have two types of Tonies: one is called the Content Tonie. Those are all of our different characters that have preloaded content. So, all of our storybook characters, movie characters – those come ready to go.

We also have the Creative Tonies, which come blank. And those are basically empty. And you can program those with your own songs, your own stories. We find that grandparents really love those because they can read a bedtime story or a personalized message to the child from anywhere in the world. And they can upload it onto the figure in a matter of seconds through the cloud [online file sharing network].

So, getting back to the benefits: listening to a story is a great exercise for kids to develop their own creative muscle. And the reason for that is because when you take away the visual stimulus, you’re putting that creative responsibility upon the child to use their own imagination. So, that helps them become more creative visualizers, which is great.

And there are many benefits to learning the storytelling process and becoming more familiar with that for their own creative imagination because that leads into going from a consuming experience of listening to someone else’s story, to creating your own story. And that’s ultimately what we have children doing with the Creative Tonies. And so learning how to do that – to write your own story – is another benefit that the Toniebox provides.


Very cool, very cool. And tell us a little bit more. Like, let’s dive into this a little bit deeper on storytelling. What is some of the information that you’ve gathered in terms of how storytelling can really change a child’s brain and development, whether that be in the short term or maybe even longer term through their lives?


Sure. I think we’re all storytellers to some extent. Like, storytelling is about engaging with your audience to make something interesting to them. And it’s something where if you can get an audience, if you have a listener and you’re able to engage them, it’s a very persuasive tool. So, as we go throughout our childhoods and into our lives, to be a better storyteller is going to help you as a person because it’s going to help you engage and be more persuasive. So, that’s one of the benefits of storytelling.

I like to talk about the “hero’s journey”, which is kind of my framework that I like to use for storytelling, which I think it was developed by a man named Joseph Campbell. And he has a lot of different points of the hero’s journey. And you can find this framework being used in Star Wars or Lord of the Rings or most of our stories.

As we talk about a children’s context, we simplify it down from all of those points down to basically three elements, which is you have a hero who overcomes a challenge to get to a reward. And so that’s the basis of every good story. And that’s what I like to teach children and help to promote so that they can identify those elements in the stories that they hear and then, again, change it into telling their own story using the same framework.


Awesome. And can you share some anecdotes or recommendations or some of the feedback I guess you’re getting from people who are using the Toniebox, whether at home or in classrooms, how children are using it in different ways?


Yeah, so the Content Tonies are pretty straightforward. You put it on the box and you can have an instant storytime. And so that really just comes down to which figures you have and building out your collection and library. The Creative Tonies is really where it diverts into different experiences where we can recommend that you use it in a certain way. But it’s really up to the participant to find different ways.

So, some of the ideas that we have is, apart from reading a bedtime story and sending it to a loved one, you can do a treasure hunt, for example, where you record an audio clue onto a Tonie and then you hide it somewhere in the house. And that clue will lead to the next clue. So, you can do a series of clues that make a treasure hunt.

You can do a pen pal program where you and a friend from down the street or you and a friend from across the world can interact in a kid-safe way where you’re not getting on to the Internet, you’re not getting into e-commerce like Alexa or Siri [commercial smart devices] or anything like that. But you can actually do it through these figures and send messages to a pen pal.

One of my favorite things is actually to give my kids a creative prompt to ask to go write a story. Because I noticed with my own kids, if I tell them to go play with the Creative Tonie, they’ll maybe make some weird sounds and they’ll kind of spend about five minutes and they’ll get bored with it.

But if I give them a prompt, like the other day I told them to go write a song about worms that was four verses long and rhymed, that gave them some constraints that they had to fit within. And so that actually kept them busy for over 45 minutes because they were trying to meet my creative brief. And then they came back, they recorded on the Tonie and they had a great time. So, that was a fun time for them but also a learning experience for me on how [to] better prep children by giving creative props to yield a more creative result.


Yeah, that’s a really good example of helping to provide those props and to have a more engaging experience for the children. Very cool. And do you have many teachers or educators using Tonies in the classroom, that you’re aware of?


We do, yes. So, we actually have a program called Tonies For Teachers where we have a specific outreach to preschool teachers, daycare teachers, libraries, museums. We’re up around 2,000 at this point, just in the last few months. And we’re sharing new and different ways for them to use the Toniebox. And more importantly, they’re building a community around each other and sharing with each other how they’re using the box in the classrooms.


Neat, I really like it. I really like the idea, too, about [how] grandparents, for example, can record a story reading from anywhere, or parents if they’re traveling. That sounds like a really useful feature because we’re sometimes traveling for work or whatever and the kids miss their parents. And especially if you’re in a different time zone and you can’t do it in real time. It’s a great idea.


Yeah, it’s a really nice feature, as you mentioned, especially for people who are separated by distance or traveling for work. It’s a really nice option to stay connected.


Alright, Drew, and on the topic of storytelling or anything related to early-childhood development, [are there] any resources you might recommend to our listeners for their own personal or professional development that you can think of?


Yeah. So, for adults, I think I mentioned The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell. There’s actually a really good book that I read recently called StoryMythos [A Movie Guide to Better Business Stories] by Shane Meeker. And Shane Meeker is actually the corporate historian of Procter & Gamble.

And I saw him speak when I was first out of business school, probably 10 years ago. He came, it was like a company leadership meeting or something. He gave a discussion on storytelling for business. And I recently came across his book, StoryMythos. And I read it and that’s kind of what reinvigorated my interest in the hero’s journey. So, that’s something that I would recommend as a resource for learning how to become a better storyteller.


Cool. Yeah, very important skill, actually, in life, as we were kind of talking about a bit before. And if our listeners want to learn more about tonies® or the Toniebox or perhaps look at getting one for at their home or in their classroom, where can they go to get more information?


Yeah, so I would start with, that’s our website. We also are available on Amazon, Target and several hundred independent toy stores across the country. So, check your local toy store. I like to also plug Toniebox USA, which is a Facebook group from the community. It’s not run by me or the company but it’s actually just several hundred parents who are sharing ideas for using Tonies with each other.


Awesome, really cool. I really love the idea of something that’s engaging for children where they can use their imagination and they’re not in front of a screen. Great idea. And Drew, thanks so much for coming on the Preschool Podcast to share more with our listeners about the Toniebox and Tonies. Thanks for coming on the show!


Yeah, thanks, it’s my pleasure. I appreciate you having me, Ron!

Kiah Price

Kiah Price is a Social Media Specialist at HiMama. Prior to HiMama she was an Early Childhood Educator in a preschool classroom in Toronto. She is the Jill of all trades at HiMama from dipping her toes in Sales, Customer Success, Operations, and Marketing! She enjoys sweating through spin classes, hot yoga, and biking along the waterfront trails in Toronto. She loves traveling and trying new foods and wines across the globe- 29 countries and counting!

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