The art of story telling

the art of storytelling

Forget Famous Five and Geronimo Stilton, put your creative hat on and take your kids on a story telling adventure.

“The world is made up of stories, not atoms.” (Muriel Rukeyser, poet)

Can I suggest at least one night a week you put books aside at bedtime and take your child on a story telling adventure. Story telling is the magic of conjuring words from air and worlds from imagination. A story can be more formally defined as a narrative that communicates meaning and through which we can make sense of the world we live in. In other words, we can use imagination to make sense of reality. As human beings, we have both the capacity and compulsion to tell stories. Stories give us pleasure and delight. The more stories children hear, the more story-smart they become and the more adept they are as wordsmiths.


  • The craft of telling and creating stories orally exercises the ability to listen, develops skillful use of language and the ability to use words to communicate meaning.
  • It enables children to imagine themself in diverse roles, places and times.
  • It provides an opportunity to engage and empathise with others’ perspectives by experiencing a wide range of emotions and situations.
  • It allows children a chance to gain insight into the importance of difference, and challenges their values and assumptions.
  • Storytelling also encourages problem-solving skills, higher-order thinking and mental flexibility.

Choose a story you enjoy telling (it can be your own or one you’ve read) and think of it as an imaginative playground. Young children particularly like stories with quick beginnings, straight forward action, a definite climax, a limited number of characters, clear simple patterns, and lots of repetition and opportunities to participate. They also expect a satisfying conclusion.

When telling your story, try to vary the pace, tone and volume of your voice. Experiment by whispering or using different character voices. Remember to use eye contact and, where possible, get the children to move or perform actions. It is also advisable to interchange the names of places, people and experiences in your story with locations familiar to them. This gives stories a local flavour. You could even use musical instruments for sound effects or introduce puppets and costumes. It is not uncommon for children to interrupt a story with one of their own. If this occurs, say, “Wow, that sounds like a great story. Let me tell mine and then we will listen to yours.”

Where appropriate, pose questions to your child. Bear in mind that questions will help to develop a story and that the quality of the answer will be dependent on the quality of the question. When putting questions to your children, start with “I wonder …”. This shows them you don’t have a preconceived ‘correct’ answer in mind. It is important to leave the child time for thought. Try not to  rephrase the question because, to a young child, this is like asking a brand new question. Instead, repeat the initial question if they can’t think of an answer initially.

Once you become comfortable with telling well-known stories, you can progress to making up new stories. A favourite idea in my household is to use a story sack with an object inside to use as a prompt. You can invite your children to speculate what migh be in the sack. Their answers will help reveal what their interests are. These objects are known as Storybones. A storybone might be something such as a key. You could then ask: Who might it belong to? What might it open? What might be inside? Once you become skilled at this, you can move onto using multiple storybones, in which you have a variety of objects in a sack and each person draws something from the sack to  add as an object to weave into the story. Alternatively, use the concepts of character – object – setting – event – feeling; with each person suggesting one idea to help improvise a story.

“The reality of the human condition is one of both brilliance and brutality.” (Jack McGuire)

fairy tales

There is often debate around whether to expose children to fairytales, with those opposed to them dwelling on their dark themes and the inherent levels of violence or sexism. In my opinion, we can too frequently smother our children with the cottonwool of good intention. Fairytales are metaphors for being human, they are not expected to be taken literally. Fairytales also teach children to develop strength and resilience, to meet challenges and disappointment, and to exercise imagination. They allow them to be heroes or heroines on a quest. Children require the whole paintbox of humanity to be presented in stories – from curiosity to sadness – in order to make sense of reality and their relationship with the world around them.

“A human being is nothing but a story with skin around it.” ( Fred Allen)

a child’s story

Children’s own stories are windows into their reality. Like a self-portrait, a child’s story can help us understand things from their perspective. Children’s first narratives are generally co-constructions with more expert language users, such as parents. They usually relate to personal experiences. Copying is a natural part of learning, until children gain confidence and become more adventurous. In time, children then progress to adding more characters and including traditional story motifs, such as giants and princesses. However, often the story will still intersect with their own experiences. As children become more familiar with story structure, they tend to continue to use traditional story motifs but add a contemporary twist. They also begin to integrate the story ingredients of character, place and object. The role of an adult in this case is to act as story detectives to children’s stories: scaffolding as needed, submerging children in a language-rich environment, asking questions to help them elaborate on points or explore ideas, and showing a genuine interest by listening attentively.

encouraging storyteling

Here are some ideas to get your children started:

  • Pass the Parcel stories: each person adds a sentence to the story.
  • Fortunately/Unfortunately: one person adds a fortunately idea and the other person follow this with an unfortunately idea. For instance, fortunately we got to have lunch … unfortunately it was brussell sprouts.
  • Use a theme, such as the beach, then brainstorm to generate a bunch of ideas to include in the story.
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