Making up stories

How to spin a lively yarn that's not by-the-book

I’m rubbing my temples when I see them: my thumbs. Within minutes, the kids are chanting “and up the hill and down the hill” as my thumbs, a.k.a. Mr. Dickie and Mr. Dweedle, are gliding, dancing, rolling. Before we know it, it’s time to board the boat. Salvation arrived in the form of a tiny tale I learned at a storytelling workshop.

That was two summers ago and I still count on the thumb story to distract. Storytelling is a skill that parents have used for centuries, but one that Peg Hasted says we are at risk of losing, thanks to our busy lives and reliance on technology for entertainment.

Why is telling children stories so important? For one, the Victoria storyteller points out, storytelling can create a magical, intimate experience. More significantly, though, taking time to create a story shows that you are willing to put your life on pause. “It’s a gift to you and your child,” Hasted says. And while the emphasis is on having fun, researchers say this simple pastime might even boost children’s brains.

University of Waterloo developmental psychologist Daniela O’Neill has found that a preschooler’s ability to tell a story from multiple characters’ points of view correlates with the child’s later mathematical abilities. “Both rely on reasoning about relations between abstract entities. In stories, children take into account characters’ different perspectives,” says O’Neill. “Storytelling might be helping a child to think in ways we don’t even know about. Don’t assume this is just playtime — there is real work going on.”

Donna Stewart, a retired primary teacher and storyteller from Kanata, Ont., would agree. She used storytelling in the classroom to develop literary and listening skills, and improve sequencing, problem solving and logical thinking. She adds that stories can pass on values, bring history to life or simply stretch the imagination. “There are oodles of stories that can help prepare kids for life,” she says, “because in stories there is nothing that cannot be resolved.”

While the idea of creating a story out of thin air might seem daunting, Hasted says you are probably already doing it. “When you talk about your day, or ask about theirs, you are sharing stories.” Taking it one step further is only a matter of letting your imagination go. If you’ve ever embellished an incident for comic or dramatic effect (“It was this big!”) you are on your way. “Like any skill or ability, the weaving of stories will grow easier with a little practice,” Hasted says. Here are some ways to tell tales to tots of all ages:

Babies and toddlers

Gentle tickle rhymes, songs and bounces will delight the youngest of children, Hasted promises. “From there you can move into nursery rhymes and classic tales like Goldilocks and the Three Bears. You want a story with a repetitive refrain — the “Not I,” said the cat/dog/mouse from The Little Red Hen. “Toddlers love animal sounds and parts where they can chime in,” Hasted says.

It might help to reread a story to refresh your memory before telling it aloud. But don’t worry if you make a mistake — the child won’t notice and, if she does, allow her to correct you. “Start with those stories you have read so many times, you could tell them in your sleep,” Stewart suggests. For original fare, start with something from real life, like the time you went on a hike (real part) and saw a bear dancing in a tutu. “A story is a bridge from the conceptual to the magical,” Stewart says.

Preschoolers

With their vivid imaginations and developing sense of humour, preschoolers love participation stories and, once familiar with a tale, they begin to take ownership. “Once, after hearing and participating in a story, a group of preschoolers said, ‘Let’s do it again, but let’s use a different animal or make the boy a girl,’” says Hasted. Simply pausing and asking your child a question can help determine a story’s direction.

Allowing your preschooler to provide you with these story seeds takes the pressure off having to come up with a new idea. Or get out the photo album — children love being told about when they were babies. “These are stories they will ask you to tell again and again,” Hasted says.

School-agers

Primary and intermediate schoolchildren can be sophisticated listeners — and they can sit still for longer plot lines. Hasted says some characters can continue on for weeks or even years, and suggests that leaving a story unresolved provides a starting point for another day. She also tells cultural variations on classic stories such as Cinderella.

Older children enjoy family lore about what their grandparents went through, says Stewart, who also tells tales of historical figures. “You can create stories that begin to pass on the values of your family and community.” Hasted suggests creating a story jar for grandparents with questions like Did you ever have an imaginary friend?

My husband, who teaches high school English, gets our kids telling stories on car rides. One person creates a first line, then someone else picks up the tale, until the last person declares, “The end.” And then it starts all over again.

Preteens and teens

This age group can be tricky because they associate storytelling with babyhood. “Storytelling with this age will be successful if it’s something that has already been established,” says Hasted. Try talking about real life, like your day or current events they would know about from the news. Or challenge them with urban myths. “You can ask if they think the story is true, and how it got started.”

It’s also an opportunity to begin researching mythology, which can inspire their own storytelling. And kids this age love scary stories, so dig back into your campfire days.

The end

The key, says Hasted, is not to get worked up about telling a story perfectly. “Give yourself permission to have fun and you will become more comfortable.” There’s no need to memorize 19th-century folk tales or take acting lessons. “Parents already have everything they need,” she says. As you gain confidence, you might experiment with different voices, gestures and volume. Think about creating pictures with your words — my five-year-old says being told a story is different than reading a book because you have to think about “what the people look like in your head.”

And once you get started, there’s no limit to the times or places you can tell stories. Try turning out the light and lying down together, or create rituals, such as lighting a candle or passing a story stick. Or just get out your thumbs.

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