How to Tell Stories to Children (And Everyone Else, Too)

I love storytelling. I love the sounds, the faces, the seriousness, the laughter. I like listening, but most of all I like telling stories. I even like it when they go sour. Children, of course, love a good story (and sometimes the bad ones), and children’s stories have a long and fascinating history. The best, however, are new every time they are told.


Fortunately, everyone is a good storyteller. It’s what makes us human, quite literally (more on this later). But some of us may have lost touch with this uniquely human skill, so today I am posting the first in a series on storytelling. The techniques are applicable to any audience, but I mostly have children in mind. I’ve broken the basic ideas into nine “chapters”, each designed to be self-contained. I will be posting them on Facebook over the following week, one each day at 1PM Mountain Time. I’d love to hear your ideas too.


I am the father of a six-year old girl and a kindergarten teacher in northern New Mexico. Our school, Taos Earth Children, is outdoors four days a week. The children have considerable free time, but our days follow a basic rhythm. One of those is rest time after lunch, during which the children lay on the earth, a knapsack or schoolbag tucked under their head, while I or another teacher tell a story. In other words, I’m in the storytelling ditches every day. In the past few years, I’ve told hundreds of stories, many of them terrible, some of them good, a few downright exquisite. Aside from school, I tell my daughter and her companions stories all the time, particularly in car rides, where they are especially useful, or when the house gets chaotic. Stories calm and redirect.


After a story, there is often a delicious moment of silence murmuring through the kids, often followed by, “That was the best story ever!” Even if I don’t get such accolades, good stories are obvious because the children draw them into their play. This is an important aspect of storytelling, and I will elaborate on this theme frequently in subsequent posts. Adults hear my stories too, and more than once has someone come up to me afterward, shaking their head, only to say, “wow.” There are few things that bring a larger smile to my face.


Part 1 - Why Tell Stories to Children?


There are many reasons people tell stories, but my focus is on imagination. There’s no surprise that storytelling is one of the most engrossing and profitable businesses on the planet. Modern stories are often told through movies, books and video games, but I am attached to the oral tradition for several reasons. A child watching a movie is unquestionably gripped by the story. So is one who is reading a book. But an oral story leaves something in place after the story is completed, which is a bond between the storyteller and the listener. This is why it’s such a vital tool for parents and educators.


Beyond this, a movie or picture book leaves little room for the imagination of the child. In an oral story, the child’s imagination is actively engaged. It’s not a passive entertainment. She is actively conjuring up the story in her mind, and even though everyone hears the same story, not everyone sees the same story. In fact, it can be very unique to each child. Unlike a movie, in which a child will have clear and definite images of the protagonist, etc., in an oral story the child has the freedom to picture the key players however s/he likes, and this aids in free play.


The basic storytelling loop looks like this – build and play with something, like a fairy boat, then set it aside. Later, during rest or quiet time, tell a story that incorporates the object or play into the story, i.e. ants find the boat and go sailing. If the story is good, chances are the child will later find the boat and expand the storyline into further and further detail. Repetition is not the goal, merely the opening up of a creative channel. And if you doubt your ability to tell a good story, believe me – it’s easier than you think. The next few days’ posts will give you some excellent groundwork to begin your own tales.


That is the essence of why I tell stories – it engages my creativity, it engages that of the child, both in the telling and in the play afterward. Finally, it leaves a lasting bond between the storyteller and listener, something that rightfully belongs to parents and educators, not screen actors or cartoon characters.


Tomorrow, I will address When to Tell Stories. Here is a breakdown of each upcoming post by subject. Each of these will be explored in depth in a self-contained post on Facebook. At some point, I’ll load the whole damn thing on the website.


How to Tell Stories to Children

(And Everyone Else, Too)


1) Why Tell Stories to Children?

2) When to Tell Stories to Children

3) Cultivate Observation and Creativity

4) On the Origin of Stories

5) Embed Your Story in Place

6) Find the Kernel or Entry Point

7) Fill the Big World with Small Things

8) Develop a Context or Framework

9) Use Surprise, Sense Info and Action



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