By Lory Britain, Ph.D., author of I’m Happy-Sad Today: Making Sense of Mixed-Together Feelings
I still envision that summer day when my father and I were floating lazily in an inner tube on the Colorado River. As we drifted, I listened to his remarkable stories. I grew up and became a parent, teacher, and grandmother. Stories seem to fly from my mind as gifts to any willing young audiences. My children and my grandchildren all find creative outlets to share their stories.
How does this happen? How do we nurture a culture of storytelling in families and in classrooms?
Across cultures and throughout history, storytelling connects people and communicates values, traditions, and beliefs. When storytelling is valued, children who hear stories are inspired to tell their own.
Today our children are bombarded with media-driven stories and images. Yet with purpose and intent, we can encourage children to be storytellers and to share stories from their hearts.
Years ago, my granddaughters and I started cocreating ongoing stories about “Flutter-Bye Buttery-Fly Flutter-Bye.” The stories’ characters, friendships, adventures, and feelings changed as my granddaughters matured. These stories validated their feelings and self-worth and helped them solve challenges in their everyday lives. Encouraging storytelling can do the same for all children.
Lessons from Uncle Frank
My Uncle Frank still lives on the family farm where he was born more than 90 years ago. Sometimes, he spontaneously delights us with childhood stories. He shares memories such as the one about hunting on his morning walk to school and his teacher directing him to stand at the back of the one-room schoolhouse by the open door. “No one likes the smell of a skunk,” explains Uncle Frank.
What inspires Uncle Frank to share his life stories at a particular moment but not others? The timing of his storytelling provides lessons for encouraging children to tell stories:
- Stories that resonate with the teller. Storytelling flourishes when the stories are meaningful to the storyteller. Encourage stories from everyday experiences and from children’s imagination.
- Listening audiences. Listeners are part of the storytelling process. Create an atmosphere where listeners are attentive to the teller and the teller’s feelings and words are valued.
- Unrushed time. Set aside blocks of time for stories to be told, free from distractions and interruptions.
- Safe and comfortable places. What places ensure a positive storytelling experience? Bedtime, car rides, sitting under a tree, mealtimes, family gatherings, a cozy chair, and classroom meetings work well.
Ideas for Inspiring Stories
Here are some tips to help inspire storytelling with your group.
- Value real and imaginary stories. Recall Marco’s father in the Dr. Seuss story And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, who said, “Marco, keep your eyelids up / And see what you can see.” Marco felt he had to choose between real observations and imaginary events. However, stories from everyday events and from children’s imagination are worthy of being told.
- Use open-ended questions. When encouraging children to begin and expand their stories, ask them open-ended questions such as, “What happened after the gate was left open?” or “What did the chickens do after they got out?” Remember that closed-ended questions that solicit one-word responses limit children’s descriptions.
- Honor children’s drawings. Children’s drawings are a form of storytelling. Ask them about their pictures with open-ended questions and statements such as, “Tell me about how the girl climbed the hill,” or “What happens after she is on top of the hill?”
- Help children express feelings. Sharing feelings about events and weaving feelings into imaginary narratives enhance stories. Help children express feelings by asking them questions such as, “And how did you feel about _____?” or “What feelings did the dragon have when it _____?” Remember, asking questions should enhance the story rather than interrupt it.
- Collect story-starter pictures. Keep a file of pictures that will inspire children to tell their own stories about something similar or to begin an imaginary story. Collect pictures of everyday events, such as a child riding a bike, or of common sights, such as a fallen tree. A simple question like, “I wonder how this child learned to ride a bike?” or “What would the tree say to the flower after it fell over?” can get stories started.
- Collaborate without overshadowing. If you are taking turns adding to a story, keep your contributions simple to allow children to share ideas. Add statements such as, “And then the dog found a magic bone and he . . . what could happen next?” Take your lead from the child’s responses.
- Ask questions about everyday events. Encourage children to share about events and feelings that happen every day. Ask open-ended questions such as, “What happened when you looked under the rock?” or “Who would like to share about when they went to the dentist?” Take a “story walk” and ask children to “collect” a story to share later.
- Bring in something from nature. Sharing a rock or a leaf or a twig can be a story-starter. Share where and how you found the object and tell a story about how it came to be. Go on a nature walk and ask children to find something to bring back to tell a story about.
- Introduce story-starter phrases. For example, “If I were a _____, I would _____.” Or introduce a “problem,” such as, “Once there were two children who forgot to pick up their clothes and . . . ” or “What would you do if _____?” Possibilities are endless. There are also commercially published story-starter kits.
- Use puppets. Children will often talk to puppets when they might hesitate otherwise. Give one puppet a special name and use the puppet for encouragement.
- Share wordless books. Some help children follow the sequence of story development, while others include a series of delightful scenes to encourage imagination.
- Encourage explaining. Children can make a story based around explaining how an object (or even a recipe) is made. Stories could come from actual experiences or their own ideas.
- Imagine talking objects. Imagine that a piece of furniture (or another object) can talk, just like the table in my book The Talking Table. What stories would it tell? When I used this question with third graders, they responded enthusiastically.
- Support acting. Playback theater is a form of improvisation where someone is asked questions about a meaningful event in their life and the “players” act out the story or the emotions of the story. The adult could be the “question-asker,” and the children choose who or what they want to be and then act it out.
- Envision pictures and stories. Help children understand the origins of the ideas for stories by suggesting they shut their eyes and picture a story. Prompts such as, “What do you see happening?” and “What does the story look like?” yield interesting results.
Mr. Rogers’s Wisdom
There are endless ways and places to encourage children to be storytellers. Undoubtedly, listening is integral to the art of storytelling. Mr. Rogers best expressed this when he said, “More and more I’ve come to understand that listening is one of the most important things we can do for one another. Whether the other be an adult or a child, our engagement in listening to who that person is can often be our greatest gift. Whether that person is speaking or playing or dancing, building or singing or painting, if we care, we can listen.”
Lory Britain, Ph.D., has more than forty years of experience working with children, teachers, and families. Her background includes time in the classroom as a preschool teacher, helping found therapeutic child and family programs, teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in early childhood education, and presenting at state, national, and international conferences for professionals who work with young children. In addition to this work, Dr. Britain has written many children’s books that help kids stay safe and express their feelings and ideas. She also takes her therapy dog Puppet to visit children in hospitals and schools. Lory lives in Eugene, Oregon.
Lory is the author of I’m Happy-Sad Today
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Thank you John. And I am sure the story memories will carry on into future generations!
Great stuff, Lory! As a retired teacher and social worker, I try to use some of your storytelling ideas when I’m with my grandchildren, especially with my 5 year old grandson. We have some pretty great discussions! Also find that some meaningful, often funny stories come up when hanging out with buddies, Mark Hassan and Howard Rothenberg. Thanks for this and best to you!