How to Tell Stories to Young Children (and Why)
What to do when your child says, 'Tell me a story....'
Conquering the Competition
When I was a little girl, my brother and I would often wander through the woods behind our house. As we stepped over mossy logs, under low-hanging branches and through swampy puddles, we would tell stories about the creatures whose territory we had invaded. They were fantastic journeys into our imaginations. While the forest has more than likely been cut down to make room for more homes, the stories remain in my heart to this day.
Storytelling is one of the most ancient arts. For centuries in every corner of the world, people have gathered to share history, folklore, myth, and legend. “Storytelling is the most natural and most human communicative form,” explains professional storyteller Lisa Lipkin, author of Bringing the Story Home: The Complete Guide to Storytelling for Parents. “Through our instinctive abilities we weave tales by creating plot, character, a beginning, a middle, and an end. Storytelling speaks to the deepest parts of ourselves.” But does it grab our children’s attention?
In a culture where youngsters are bombarded with visual stimulation, it is hard to believe that a simply woven verbal tale, devoid of visual effects, can entrance an audience. Yet Lipkin says, “Nothing, not even the grandest, most elaborate video screen or animated movie, can compete with a child’s imagination. Stories tap into that glorious wellspring of creative thought that comes naturally to children. Storytellers set a child’s imagination in motion, allowing him to create characters, costumes, smells, and sights that are wholly original, compelling, and unique to that child.” And when the storyteller has a personal connection to the audience, her spoken words make an even more memorable impression.
Family members (parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters) can be the most engaging storytellers.
It’s one of the most intimate moments a parent can share with a child, says Carleton Kendrick, Ed.M, LCSW, a family therapist in private practice in Medfield, Massachusetts. “The tone of your voice, your closeness to your child, your facial expressions all add to the experience of telling a story just for your son or daughter.”
“When I look into my two-year-old daughter Juliet’s eyes when I’m telling a story and see them transfixed, I know I’m a successful storyteller,” says Rabbi Jonah Pesner. As associate rabbi at Temple Israel in Boston, Rabbi Pesner frequently shares stories with his congregation. “Rabbis have always been storytellers. Long before the Torah was written down, it was passed from generation to generation orally.” But telling stories to children brings him the greatest pleasure. “The truth I want to teach children often comes through stories.”
But I Can’t Tell a Good Story
Not everyone is a great storyteller, but everyone can tell a story. “People don’t realize they have a story to tell,” says Lipkin. “Children love hearing about the small details of everyday life.”
Judith Black, who has told stories professionally for 25 years, encourages parents to give it a try. “You don’t have to be so creative. Just review what happened during the day.” For her own family, Black invented a mouse whose life exactly matched that of her son, Solomon. “The mouse shared many of my son’s characteristics and daily experiences. And at the end of every story, he was the hero who solved all the problems.”
A Lifetime of Stories
Perhaps the greatest stories ever told are those based on our own personal experiences. Rabbi Pesner suggests, “Start with what you know—your own life history, your parents’ story.”
“This is a significant way to pass on where we come from,” says Kendrick. “The bond between parent and child can deepen as personal experience is shared. And it’s always such a delight to show your children yourself at their age.”
Truth or Fiction?
Lipkin adds, “Folklorists and storytellers believe that a personal story is formed at the place where fact and imagination come together. Even if a personal story isn’t one hundred percent factually accurate, it is emotionally accurate, revealing the hopes and fears and dreams of the teller.”
Sometimes a story can address a real-life dilemma in an imaginative way. “This is an ideal, non-threatening, avenue for a child to reveal things to you,” Kendrick says.
Black recalls how her storytime mouse helped her son overcome a difficulty. “My son could not tell me what was wrong, but through the mouse we strategized a solution to his problem.”
Partners in Rhyme
Every story is a partnership, says Black. For the novice storyteller, sharing the creative chore of building the action can add fun and fantasy. Ask the audience questions at crucial junctures. Request suggestions for time, place, and characters. Start the story and then choose an audience member to continue it.
“I believe the most important factor in enhancing storytelling skills is practice,” Lipkin comments. “Keep telling stories at home, no matter how small or insignificant they feel.”
Rabbi Pesner points out, “You don’t have to be a professional, just celebrate the transmission.”
“It’s not about whether you do a good job or not, it’s about playing,” concludes Kendrick.
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