21 Aug Storytelling for Kids – Why it’s Essential & How to Do it (Easily!)
I write this as someone whose entire life – from childhood, though adolescence and into adulthood – has been enhanced by stories of all kinds.
I love the way stories allow us to leave our world behind and dive into other people’s lives, explore the dark depths of the human soul, and see things from different perspectives. Logan P. Smith hit the nail on the head when he said:
“People say that life’s the thing, but I prefer reading.”
I read all kinds of books, from novels to biographies, from the classics to thrillers (anything, in fact, except fantasy and “women’s literature” – eurgh). It makes me deliriously happy to have an evening alone, cuddled up on the couch with a glass of wine, a bowl of nuts and a good book – even more so since having children made it such a rare occurrence!
Why are Books and Storytelling for Kids so Important?
I’m equally happy to read stories to my children and I love seeing them settle down with a book.
Reading is a hugely important part of a child’s education and development. They learn about social interaction and values; they learn to understand the world they are living in. Books also permit them to enter a thousand other worlds and contemplate endless possibilities. Our children are equipped with the necessary tools for building tomorrow’s world – stories awaken and feed the imagination, they fuel creativity!
Few things please me more than getting lost in a great story with my children, time passing by unnoticed. This is how passions develop, and I want them to love and reap the benefits of books, as I do. Reading is essential.
“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”– F. Douglass
Every Child Loves to Be Told an Exciting Tale
Let’s be honest, we all love a good story – especially kids (what kind of oddball child doesn’t?). Whether you make it up or read from a book, it really doesn’t matter. When children are young it’s all about enjoying the time you’ve set aside for being together. Telling tales makes it easy to bond with your children, too. Nothing gives them more comfort than your voice telling a beautiful tale, sometimes over and over and over again. Zzzz…
This arrangement works out rather well for me as a parent – I’ve always preferred storytelling for kids over playing Lego or roleplay games. Reading to them comes more naturally, and, thankfully, there’s no shortage of wonderful books for kids around. But I’ve long-wondered why there are so few books for children that are based on real-life events, people and places. Most of those that do exist have an overtly educational tone, which instantly repels even the youngest of audiences!
The Art of Storytelling for Kids
It didn’t immediately occur to me that I might be able to plug the gap in the market with my own ‘real life’ tales. I thought ‘making up stories’ required quick wit and a wild imagination – the ability to conjure up fantastical worlds full of magical beasts and anthropomorphized objects. But as I’ve since learned, this is definitely not the case; the world as we know it contains everything we need, and more…
My AHA – Experience
I didn’t make this discovery until we travelled as a family. And I have to admit, it was a discovery born out of frustration, not inspiration. With little room for a library of books in our backpacks, I’d downloaded lots of children’s stories onto the e-reader. But it soon became clear that whilst this method might be okay for an adult reading alone, it’s no good when you’re trying to keep two small kids entertained. The images were too small, and there was always one child who couldn’t see enough. Squabbles were inevitable.
The other significant problem was a complete lack of books I could use to prepare the children for the countries we were visiting. And so, out of necessity, I decided it was time for some DIY – using our marvelous blue planet and its myriad true tales as my starting point. Google and Wikipedia were my go-to sources of information. Before long, I’d amassed a treasure trove of facts and stories that were ripe for re-telling.
A World of Inspiration
Here’s just a handful of the topics I found (click on the countries to learn more about our travels there):
- Bangkok: The tale of the Golden Buddha, the life of Siddharta Gautama, and the life of Dalai Lama.
- Australia: Australia as a prison island, the landing of James Cook, HMS Pandora and Pandora’s Box, the gold rush in NSW and Victoria in the 1850s, the tale of the (non-existent) ‘drop bears’, the Aborigines’ ‘Dream time’ world, finding Nemo on the Great Barrier Reef, and the tree-sprouting bird poo of Daintree rainforest.
- New Zealand: The Maori legend of ‘how the kiwi lost his wings‘, Tale of Abel Tasman (the first European to see New Zealand – who did it without setting foot on the land!), the Christchurch earthquakes of 2011, and the first man to scale Mt. Everest – New Zealander Edmund Hillary.
- Switzerland: The legend of William Tell and the Rütlischwuroath, Heidi (the central character of a series of books based on the aptly titled 1881 two-parter, ‘Heidi: her years of wandering and learning’),the origins of Swiss military neutrality, the life of physician, alchemist and astrologer, Paracelsus, or the life of the famous confectioner, Henri Nestlé.
- Germany: The Berlin Air Bridge, the Berlin Wall, and the life of Albert Einstein.
And if you’re not limiting your search to certain countries, the possibilities are endless! How about the Wright brothers’ first motorized flight in 1903, the sinking of the Titanic, the life of Mahatma Ghandi, or how we came to have Christmas trees… The world is your oyster!
Start with what you know
Before we look at how to turn your factual discoveries into stories for kids, it’s worth getting a bit of practice in with something easier. Start with a tale you know inside out. Whether it’s the escapades of a relative or ancestor, or something that happened during your own childhood. Your kids will love hearing about the time you emptied a bucket-full of snails into grandma’s garden salad because your aunt told you it’s their favorite food.. You might even want to practice it once or twice without the kids listening, before going ‘live’.
(True) Storytelling for Kids – in 11 Easy Steps
Ready to develop your storytelling technique? Great! Just follow these simple steps!
1. Choose a country and do a Google search on the country’s history, its indigenous people and their legends, famous personalities/artists/inventions etc, animals, habits and culture.
2. Select one to three dry facts, in preparation for turning them into an exciting tale for kids.
3. Always start with the same words, like “Once upon a time…” or “There used to be a…”
4. Create a main characterand maybe a friend for them, too. If you are retelling the story of a certain person, the main character is clear. Don’t forget to make up some character traits – things your kids can relate to. Maybe the protagonist is not so good at academic subjects but is a fast runner. Or the heroine is very shy but has great ideas. William Tell, for example, was fearful and obedient in the beginning, but he was also angry for being treated disrespectfully.
5. The plot itself is more or less given, which is good. No need for a fantasy world full of flying turtles and candy cane trees.
6. Bring the facts to life. Describe the hard work involved in panning for gold, and the frenzy gold diggers were in when they found a nugget. Consider how the children felt when candy was dropped down from the sky during the Berlin Air Bridge.
7. Describe the place where the story happens. What color was the sail of Abel Tasman’s ship, what did the hills of New Zealand look like when he spotted them for the first time? What did it smell and sound like in Pandora’s box?
8. You can create real drama if you speak with different voices for different characters, experiment with speed and volume, and pause at crucial moments.
9. Use physical gestures to illustrate what’s happening. Frown or shake your head, move your arms, smile and nod…
10. Make it interactive. Let your children ask questions and let them return to another part of the tale if they want to. There might be something your child is still thinking about or doesn’t understand. Explain, then repeat the last sentence and go on with the story. This way your child can easily reconnect.
11. Finally, there should always be a happy ending. The Golden Buddha was uncovered and put into its own temple in Bangkok, highly revered by the Thai Buddhists. Edmund Hillary finally managed to climb Mt. Everest and earned fame all over the world.
Storytelling for Kids Sound Like a Lot of Work?
It’s not – it’s just a list of things you probably already know, quite likely because your own parents or grandparents told you tales when you were little, too. If you were lucky enough to have that experience, just try to do it like they did.
Remember why you’re doing it too – besides bonding with your child and teaching them social skills, your real-life tales will give them an insight into our world’s history and culture. My kids have found it much easier to appreciate certain places during our travels, since I started telling them stories based on the countries’ histories. What’s more, they still love hearing those tales and remembering where they have been and what they have experienced. Storytelling for kids in this case is another way of preserving their memories!
Let Your Kids Tell a Story, too!
One sunny day we were hiking up a hill on New Zealand’s South Island. To distract the children from the fact there was still a loooong way to go, I started a storytelling-battle with our eldest, JT. He came up with some nice ideas – although they were rarely coherent and always lacked a punch line. But it was fun for both of us, and even our littlest, CT, whom I carried on my shoulders all the way up the murderous hill, was thrilled and wanted to hear more about the adventures of the eight brothers and sisters who all had their own planes and cars.
The Benefits of Hearing our Kids’ Tales
Children rarely get the time and the attention to tell their own stories to their parents or peers. We all hurtle through life at such velocity, it’s rare for anyone to take the time to sit down and listen to a child. But maybe we should – comparative studies show that a lack of reading and storytelling results in poor linguistic, reading and writing skills among children. On the flip-side, there are loads of benefits to be had from allowing our kids to tell us stories:
- Sharpens their communication skills
- Makes reading and writing easier
- Provides an opportunity to talk about things that bother them
- Improves their ability to concentrate and sit still
- Supports the development of their personality
- Encourages the awakening of their imagination
- Stimulates expression and their use of language
- Reveals a lot about what the child is occupied with
- Teaches them to listen to and respect others
As with reading and telling stories to kids, hearing what they have to say aids bonding. It allows us to get to know each other even better. When telling a tale, you always reveal something about yourself. Of course, some children are more forthcoming than others. If your child finds it difficult in the beginning, perhaps try reading this heart-warming, multilingual ‘book about a little girl ‘ who tries to keep too many secrets to herself. It’s one of my favorites, and my kids always really empathize with her.
The Magic Story Box
As adults, we often find it hard to make up stories. So it’s not surprising that children can get a bit stuck at times, too. This is where story-games can be helpful. I tried this one out with Julian recently, and it worked really well. Especially since we did it at a friend’s house, which meant I could wriggle out of the crafting element. It’s called “The magic story box”. To play it, you need three blocks of differently colored paper – let’s say blue, yellow and red.
On the blue ones, for example, you draw your hero characters – a little boy, a princess, a knight, a talking dog, a family, a crazy scientist… Whatever comes to mind!
On the yellow ones you draw places – a secret island, a castle, a soccer field, a house, a swimming pool, a dark forest, an ice-cream parlor, a mountain, or a treehouse, for example.
The red ones are used for a variety of objects. You could draw a plane, a magic wand, a bike, a candle, a black cat, a dragon, a fire, or a pirate ship – let your imagination run wild!
How to Play The Game
When you’re done drawing, fold the pieces of paper and put them into a colorful box. Afterwards, everyone picks out three (one of each color) and makes a short story out of whatever they find. If you’re really going for it, you can also invent a ‘storyteller’s chair’ for the person whose turn it is to sit on. Otherwise, the storyteller just stands in front of the family, which gives him more space to move around while telling his tale.
Our brain is somehow primed to create a connection between incoherent words and pictures. Even the little ones can do it, though of course, the younger they are, the more help they’re likely to need. It’s also lots of fun, and a great way for your children to learn how to speak freely in front of others. Especially if they tend to be more introverted.
Stories Form Personalities – and Societies!
Humans have always told each other stories – about the planet, themselves, their ways of living. As the author Henning Mankell says:
“A society is formed by millions of conversations. When a person can tell his story, he becomes part of society. But if nobody listens to you or your story, you don’t exist.”
When our kids sit in front of screens, no-one is listening to them. Let’s hear their stories and tell them ours! There’s no shortage of inspiration, after all!
What kind of stories do you tell to your kids? Do you know any true tales yourself? Feel free to leave them in the comments section below, inspiration is always welcome!
The World is Big, But The World of Tales is Infinite.