Storytelling has made its way into very different areas of our lives. Brands no longer advertise, they “tell” a story. Politicians gain popularity because they connect with voters through personal stories. Businesses are looking for data analysts by including “data storytelling” in job descriptions.
Why and when did this ability to tell a compelling story become so important? Do we pay enough attention to storytelling when we think about how to raise children?
Naturally, young children most learn from those closest to them: mum, dad, grandparents, sisters and brothers. Who is the storyteller in your family?
When I think about myself, I occasionally doubt my own storytelling abilities. How can a working mother at 9 o’clock at night tell a story better than J.K Rowling? Or at least something like it?!
I found a liberating idea in the book “How To Tell Stories To Children” by S.R. West and J. Sarosy:
When a child asks you to tell him a story, what he wants is not a plot but your attention. In storytelling, it’s the relationship that counts, not the plot.
Well, once I tell myself that the plot is not so important, and the relationship is much more important, my confidence as a storyteller grows. I still remember the fundamental parts of a story’s plot: the beginning (the clue), the middle (the peak) and the end (the conclusion). It’s so simple and obvious that… It doesn’t help! The curious eyes of the children study me, sitting on the edge of the bed, preparing to tell the story.
Five fingers of a hand
I remember my literature teacher holding up the five fingers of her hand. Children, I hear my language teacher’s raspy voice, every story needs, with the first finger bent, a character. Characters are set in a particular place and time, they are surrounded by smells and colours, that is the environment, bend the second finger. Characters perform the action, determine the main events (third finger). By following the main events, the character’s problem is easily revealed (fourth finger). And finally, by bending the fifth finger, the character finds the solution.
It doesn’t help either. I’m fidgeting around for a while, my eyes are running, I’m closing them, trying to remember something. The last article I read recently on storytelling was “Storytelling in Crisis Communication”. It might be useful, but I only remember the title…
And suddenly, a loop!
The Storytelling Loop
S.R. West and J. Sarosy, authors of the book “How to Tell Stories to Children“, introduced a single method – the storytelling loop. This is what saves me, because this method requires no preparation, the story is created here and now. All you have to do is choose a few objects or situations from the child’s everyday environment and make them the cornerstones of the story.
Let the imagination do the rest of the work and fill the story with new friends and impossible problems. Reduce big objects. Enlarge the small. And so create a new “reality”. Reality to imagination to new reality.
The Story of Pens and their People
I remembered that today Kostas’ pen crashed and he was extremely annoyed. Aha, let the pen be in the story loop today.
Once upon a time, there was a pen. For a while it was packed away on a shelf in a shop. Like every pen, it dreamt of having its own Human. It’s own pen-pal who would write with him. One day, Kostas’ mother bought it. Finally! It has his own Human, Kostas. Pen used to spend a lot of time at school and never missed a chance to chat with other pens. All the pens agreed that the most unpleasant thing is when your own man loses the cap. You’re in the peak of your powers and then you start to wither… And it happens that you fall off the table, and then, oh my God, it’s so bad that you get sick to your stomach, and you might even get ink on yourself… and so on and so on.
At the beginning of the story, you will probably choose the objects you see in the child’s room as the characters and create a simple, fictional storyline. Eventually, by telling stories and following the ‘story loop’, you will notice certain situations and the emotions of the child. You will definitely be able to create a story that is not only entertaining but also comforting or cautionary.
How To Encourage A Child To Tell A Story?
Telling stories to your children is great, but how do you encourage your child to tell a story? Dr. Cathy Miyata is a professor of education at Wilfrid Laurier University (Canada) with a special interest in children’s storytelling. She has prepared excellent methodological material for educators on how to educate younger children through storytelling. She identifies three ways in which children can be helped to tell stories:
Telling A Child’s Personal Story
Telling a personal story is a great way to start. It’s a story where the main character is your child himself! In this case, a leading question about tense or uplifting emotional situations with a happy ending is very helpful:
- When were you most afraid?
- Have you ever been lost?
- Where did this scar come from?
- What is the best gift you have received?
- How did you reconcile with a friend?
The professor advises asking children to give more details. Tell them that you want to see the story as a picture. Where have you been? What did everything look like? What did you do? Even if you know the answers, let them be the storytellers themselves. Don’t interfere and don’t correct.
Creative Storytelling Games
Do you remember any of the storytelling games played with friends? The simplest one is a group storybuilding when each participant “takes over” the story and tells a single sentence which is passed to the next storyteller. The game will flow more easily (especially with younger children) if the first storyteller give clear clues by describing the main character, the action place, and what the action is. For example, “today I saw a cat jumping rope in the schoolyard”.
Games such as Mirror Forest Tales can be a great tool to help younger children tell stories. The child can choose his or her own story character from a set of 12 mirror figures representing a bear, an owl, a hare, a hedgehog, a fox, a bush, forest grass, and trees. Each night, a different figurine can become the storyteller.
Storytelling As Performance
If a child feels comfortable with storytelling, write down some of the stories she has told. Ask her to tell it again and point out that she may change her voice, and use gestures and facial expressions. Encourage her to tell the story in front of the audience. In the beginning, the audience could be Dad, or maybe the whole family at the dinner table. Would she like the performance to be filmed and shared with other family members who live elsewhere? Telling and sharing stories will really boost young confidence.
What Does Storytelling Teach?
Storytelling strengthens attachment and fosters genuine bond in the family. After telling your own created story, you will notice how many meaningful experiences and warm memories it creates for both the child and you, the storyteller. Remember, when a child asks you to tell a story, it is not the plot he wants, but your attention? Storytelling helps children learn new things:
- Expressing thoughts
Storytelling teaches coping with difficult emotions. Stories also show that there is a way out, even in life’s most difficult situations, if you just keep trying. Once you start storytelling, you will feel that you are creating a special atmosphere: safe, calm, and full of your child’s attention, where you are letting your child learn all these invaluable new skills.
By telling stories to or with children, you will feel for yourself the power of stories to reinforce personal connection and keep attention. Right there is the simple answer to why and when storytelling became so important. The winners are the ones who succeed to capture and hold our attention longer than their competitors.
Written and researched by Elena Aleknavičienė, mother of three boys and a management professional. Edited and questioned by Vita Markevičiūtė, founder of edu2, who is also a mother.
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