Storytelling is one of the oldest and most profitable businesses on the planet. Modern stories are often told through movies, books and video games, but the oral tradition has something unique to offer - a lasting bond between the storyteller and listener. This is why it’s such a vital tool for parents, educators and anyone interested in a meaningful relationship with children.
Think of it as the difference between a can of tomato sauce and homemade marinara. A practiced storyteller draws upon the events and objects within a child's immediate surroundings, like plucking tomatoes and herbs from the garden, then crafts stories that are not only entertaining (or tasty), but local and organic - crafted precisely for those children in that place.
In this book, we outline the key ingredients for intuitive storytelling so that you can begin improvising your own stories directly from within the environment in which you and your children live. We are parents and teachers with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of story-hours under our belts, but this book has nothing to do with how to tell our stories, or anyone else's. It has everything to do with how to tell yours.
Silke is a Waldorf teacher who has taught kindergarten for over thirty years. In 1995, she cofounded the Taos Waldorf School and today she runs an independent forest kindergarten called Taos Earth Children. She is renowned in Taos for her puppet shows and storytelling, and is frequently invited to children’s events. Joe worked with Silke for two years at Taos Earth Children, and in 2018 he formed a loosely collaborative 1st grade, a multi-age group of children he plans to teach through the 8th grade. They are now in their second year of formation. Joe is also the author of A Father’s Life, a book of stories revolving around the first year of the Earth Children. In 2018, he created the #Greatdad Campaign to highlight great fathers across the nation. A contributing writer for fatherly.com, he has also written articles for kosmosjournal.org and writes a successful blog at www.offgridkids.org.
Our school days are largely spent outside, learning from within the local environment in which we live. Storytelling is a principal part of our day. Our stories are often about local animals and plants, an upcoming holiday, or a craft we just made with the kids. Characters frequently encounter situations that the kids have recently seen themselves, including sticky classroom subjects and occasional behavior issues. At the end of story time, it is not uncommon for the kids to erupt with phrases like, “that was the best story ever!”
It’s true that we’re good storytellers, but the essence behind the children’s statements has little to do with the content and quality of our stories. What’s much more critical is the emotional bond and shared experience we have with the kids, so that our stories are crafted from events and objects everyone recognizes. When we approach storytelling from this perspective, the goal is not the world’s most engrossing narrative, just the day to day stories that build intimacy, trust and craft between teacher (or parent) and child.
There are hundreds of storybooks available today, including several that give some instruction and background on storytelling. Some of these books are excellent, but each is primarily focused on memorizing or retelling stories that someone else, whether the author or someone ancient, has prepared for you. This is not the intention of our book. What you hold in your hands is not a collection of stories. It is a method to help you craft your own.
The technique is simple, something we employ every day with a lot of variety and flexibility. The only expertise required is emotional contact with your children, something that you do better than anyone else.
Contrast this with the message from storyteller Marie Shedlock in the introduction to her classic The Art of the Storyteller, "It is to be hoped that someday stories will be told to school groups only by experts who have devoted special time and preparation to the art of telling them."
Shedlock means well, but this is precisely the opposite of our message, which is that everyone is a good storyteller and no expert can replace the intimacy of a story crafted from within a child's own environment by an attentive and loving parent or caregiver.
The intuitive method we describe in this book employs a simple architecture, starting with the physical objects and activities within your child's immediate environment. Sometimes, this can be as complicated as reframing a conflict among the children in the guise of a quarrel amongst squirrels, but often it’s as simple as noticing a child’s bare feet, then telling a story about what happened when her shoelaces took a walk down to the stream. Such stories make the kids giggle, or think. They feel like they are a part of it, because they recognize the characters and events in the stories from their real lives. They feel seen.
But that’s not all. Because intuitive stories are crafted from within a child's environment, there is a direct and physical outlet for play afterward. This is the storytelling loop we describe in chapter one. It is not hard to imagine, for example, what a barefoot child who has recently heard a story about her shoelaces will do once she finds her shoes.
As a whole, the chapters in this book describe the ingredients of our storytelling method, but each topic is self-contained, so that most folks will have no trouble cherry picking. Each chapter can be read in less than ten minutes and is followed by a sample story to illustrate the chapter. Many folks will find it easy to read the entire book in one sitting, but it would be perfectly suitable, and even very much to our liking, if you read a chapter, try a story with your kids, then return another day for another topic. Good storytelling, despite what Marie Shedlock says, is not about perfection. It’s about practice. There is no rush.
We trust this method because we use it almost every day. We’ve seen it work in multiple settings over multiple years, and there is enormous flexibility. The framework is helpful, especially if you are just getting started, but no two stories and no two storytellers are ever the same. Good stories, like good people, are as diverse as the peaks of a mountain range, with all the valleys and streams between. Find your place. Find your voice. Your stories will be most fruitful when you stop listening to any advice, including ours, and simply follow the story that is already inside you.
If this book can be reduced to one message, it’s this — you are already a good storyteller. It’s literally what makes you human. It comes with the package, just like hair and opposable thumbs. So remember, if it’s marinara you’re after, try a few recipes the first time around. It will help, and it won’t take long to beat the canned variety. But once you’ve mastered your particular taste, throw out the recipe book. Your intuition will take you and your kids further than you ever dreamed.
The Science Behind the Story
“…why, in a world of necessity [do] we choose to spend so much time caught up in stories that both teller and told know never happened and never will?”1 This is the opening question of evolutionary theorist Brian Boyd’s On the Origin of Stories. A similar question can be found in the pages of David Sloan Wilson’s Darwin’s Cathedral. Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University, Wilson has received countless awards for his work and recently received funding from the National Science Foundation to expand his evolutionary studies program into a national consortium. Is it possible, he asks, that cultural stories (in this case, specifically religious stories) unite their listeners into a group with distinct evolutionary advantages?2
The scope of these questions is well beyond the material tackled in How to Tell Stories to Children. We’re kindergarten teachers, yo. Nevertheless, the emerging conversation among cognitive researchers, neuroscientists and evolutionary theorists sheds a tremendous amount of light on the gravity of storytelling and it’s worth opening a small window into that world.
Put simply, we are an extraordinarily social species, sometimes labeled super-social. The success we have gained as a species, and therefore as individuals, is due in large part to our ability to cooperate (and compete) with one another. The thin line we tread between cooperation and competition with our family, clan and neighbors has driven the development of remarkable tools to share information, withhold information, read the intentions of others, and impress or conceal our own intentions upon them.
One of those principal methods is storytelling. Storytelling is how we tell people what happened, what we wish had happened, or what we’d like to do now. Jennifer Aaker, a professor of marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, reports that people remember information when it is incorporated into a narrative “up to 22 times more than facts alone.” 3 Stories are also the principal method we use to mislead, or attempt to mislead, others with lies. Put on the spot, most four-year-olds will spontaneously fabricate stories to avoid uncomfortable truths.4 Adults aren’t much better. Gossip amounts to nearly 65% of all communication in public.5
But stories are more, much more, than a means of conveying truths or deceptions. They are, as we know from billion dollar movies, bestselling books, and 30,000 year old cave paintings, one of the most engrossing activities for human beings everywhere. We pay good money for a good story, even though, as Brian Boyd states incisively, “both teller and told know [it] never happened and never will.” Why?
Beyond the simple measures of truth-telling or deception, human beings use stories to garner attention, simulate actions (including emotions), and develop trust. Storytelling is the primary way we pass values between members of our social group, including from parent to child. “Stories,” states a recent article in the Atlantic, “can be a way for humans to feel that we have control over the world. They allow people to see patterns where there is chaos…a form of existential problem-solving.” 6
Perhaps now we can begin to understand why David Sloan Wilson suggests that cultural and religious stories might hold an evolutionary advantage for their listeners. Cooperation amongst community members, Wilson says, has always been a vital component of human survival. “Loving and serving a perfect God,” however, “is vastly more motivating than loving and serving one’s imperfect neighbor.” In other words, “A fictional belief system that is user-friendly and that motivates an adaptive suite of behaviors will surpass a realistic belief system that requires a Ph.D. to understand.” It’s important to recognize that Wilson is not suggesting that religious beliefs are fictional (or true), merely that, whether true or not they are deeply imbued with stories that motivate behavior.
Most parents observe this on a daily basis. Whether a recent Harry Potter book or a Disney movie, children tend to act and speak out the stories they have recently heard, read or watched. Adults do much the same, repeating the best lines from their favorite movies, and even taking on some of the flamboyance of their favorite characters.
Why is storytelling so compelling? It is the principal method by which we pass culture (or meaning) from parent to child and human to human. And not just meaning, but ways of being. Poise. Tone. Swagger. Family history. Storytelling is also, along with touch, one of the greatest arbiters of intimacy and trust. People who frequently share stories are usually bonded in unique and lasting ways. This is why Psychology Today lists it as their number one recommendation to parents interested in raising a happy child.7 It’s also why gossip amounts to 65% of our conversations. The content is almost inconsequential. The emotional intimacy is what we crave, and it turns out that sharing stories builds it better than almost anything.
In his influential book The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall writes that fiction, “will make you more empathic and better able to navigate life’s dilemmas.”8 Stories, he says, are like dress rehearsals for real life. He quotes Marco Iacoboni, a pioneering neuroscientist at UCLA who studies mirror neurons, “We have empathy for fictional characters…because we literally experience the same feelings ourselves.” Storytelling is not an evolutionary glitch, Gottschall concludes, “fiction is…good for us.”
Our hope is that this book will inspire you to claim the tradition of storytelling for yourself. It is your birthright as a human being, just like hair and opposable thumbs. In fact, you are already telling stories throughout much of your day, whether to yourself, at the office, or in a circle of friends. Gottschall says it well, “story is for a human as water is for a fish.” You have the tools. You have the history. By stepping consciously into this role with your child, you repeat a journey millions of parents and caregivers have taken before. With practice, you might even discover that you are an exceptional storyteller, but this much is certain - the emotional bond that naturally arises from storytelling will be a lasting gift for you and your child.
1Boyd, B. (2009). On the Origin of Stories. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
2Wilson, D. S. (2003). Darwin’s Cathedral. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
3Aaker, J. (2014). Lean In: Harnessing the Power of Stories [Video file]. Retrieved from https://leanin.org/education/harnessing-the-power-of-stories
4Vitelli, R. (2013, November 11). When Does Lying Begin. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/media-spotlight/201311/when-does-lying-begin
5Healy, B. (2018, July). Gossiping is Good. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/07/gossip-is-good/561737/#4
6Delistraty, C. (2014, November 2). The Psychological Comforts of Storytelling. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/11/the-psychological-comforts-of-storytelling/381964/
7Allyn, P. (2013, July). 10 Ways to Raise a Happy Child. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/litlife/201307/10-ways-raise-happy-child
8Gottschal, J. (2012). The Storytelling Animal. New York, NY. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co.