"If a nation loses its storytellers, it loses its childhood." ~ Peter Handke
Telling stories aloud, different than reading stories, provides many opportunities for connection with each other, creative development, and simply our human-ness. Telling stories gets us laughing and is a fantastic way to spend time doing something fun and snuggly, simply connecting, with our children and families. Storytelling telling offers our kids extended development of vocabulary, listening skills, and story structure. It offers a way for our children to discover history, other and their own. A way to simply and profoundly learn about what Mom, Dad, or Grandma did as a young child; another vital tool along their journey to becoming literate, thinking people with a strong connection to who they are.
Librarian and storyteller Jeff Defty says, "so many adult /child activities require the adult to reach down to the child's level or the child to reach up to the adult's. Storytelling is a unique meeting ground, a place of shared meaning where no one has to pretend they're interested in something beneath or beyond their years. It is a place where we all get to be merely human."
Even if you feel you don't have it in you, storytelling is an art that anybody can learn.
The Art of Storytelling
Start with what you know. Tell what you remember. For some time in our house, "Ouchy Stories" were a huge hit. Any detailed memory about a time when one of us got hurt was treasured. Tell about firsts or funny happenings that involved your child or someone they love. Special memories of holidays past are golden.
Family Folklore and Myths
Of course, real stories and passing on what things were like when you were young are wonderful ways to begin, it is also wonderfully fun to tell stories about the fantastical too. From Grandpa's story about the cat who slipped down the chimney to the dinosaur that took a bite out of mom's favorite hat, fanciful family folklore is magically delightful. When I was little, a common story my dad (who otherwise wasn't a big storyteller beyond "This Little Piggy..." told a family myth about how the windshield wipers worked. Who knew there was actually a bird in there that would spit on the window when you pressed that little button.
Read, Read, Read
The more you read, the more stories will begin to emerge in your household. Retell what you read. Tell new stories about some of your favorite characters. Maybe even make up stories about some of your favorite authors.
Take a story you know well and make it different. Change the setting, change key props, change the ending. A good place to start is fairy tales or other folklore or use predictable stories like Mrs. Wishy-Washy (who can then become a new character like Mr. Squishy-Squashy) as a source for easy creative stories. Another great way to start is with wordless picture books. NEVER underestimate the greatness of a wordless picture book. They often get overlooked by parents seeking to provide literary experiences for their beginning readers, but they are a fantastic storytelling tool.
Learn Key Phrases
Many memorable stories have key phrases that are all a parent needs to remember when telling a story. So use all those "Run, run as fast as you can, you can catch me" and "My what big _______ you have's" to make your stories connect with your child's already growing schema. Stories can go on and on and take all kind of exciting turns when you know a few simple key phrases. We still haven't found an item that won't fit into,
"Brown bear, brown bear, What do you see?" Well, golly gee, I see a stop sign looking at me!
Eyes on the Prize
Don't forget to keep good eye contact with your 'audience' when telling stories. It will help them stay focused.
Use Your Own Words
Don't worry about trying to recite your child's favorite story word for word.
They'll likely correct you on some of the important details now and again, but make the story your own by using your own words.
Never underestimate the power of audience participation. Little pauses in the storyline will likely be filled in by even your youngest listeners. Making a story a joint venture also takes a huge weight off your story-bearing shoulders and will usually make the story more interesting and take unexpected turns.
For some children, listening to stories for anything length of time can be difficult if their learning styles, multiple intelligences if you will, are not catered to. We often tell stories, even retell stories, using our piano where emotion, tension or sheer delight can easily be conveyed. Consider adding other props to make the story come alive as well as tapping into your child's own learning style. Use shakers, puppets, a piece of string, a flashlight and your hands, drums, a favorite teddy bear, or a special rock. Use sound, sight, smell, and touch. The possibilities are endless.
A great way to help your child use his/her imagination fully is to guide them through some imagery. With eyes open or closed (usually the easiest to see the picture in the mind) lead your child through some images such as a leaf falling off a tree, the balloon that got away, the salmon in the stream, a squirrel preparing for winter. Don't forget to add cues that will help your child imagine all their senses being used during the journey.
Storytelling creates traditions filled with magical moments. This holiday season, give the precious gift of imagination with a few good hand-me-down tales.
A Few Favorite Storytelling Resources
Juba This and Juba That by Virginia Tashjian
Homespun: Tales from America's Favorite Storytellers by Jimmy Neil Smith
The Storyteller's Start-Up Book by Margaret Read MacDonald
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