Storytelling has so much more power, to me, than reading out of a book. I never thought it would until I worked in a Waldorf inspired preschool. In a Waldorf classroom, stories are told rather than read from a book and I began to really enjoy creating a tale from my own imagination versus regurgitating something from someone else’s mind.
Telling stories is quite different than reading stories. In reading, the person is following another’s cadence, word choice, and feelings. In telling, we can see the personality and individuality of the raconteur, rather than the script. Eye contact is also important and a story teller establishes a personal connection with the listeners, rather than placing the barrier of the volume between people. In the Waldorf tradition, even the poorly memorized story will far outweigh the ‘recited’ version in many instances, especially with younger children.
I believe that storytelling is vital in the life of your young child. While telling a story that the parent has memorized, a special relationship is established between the child and the parent, a relationship of the heart. “Learning by heart” is different than “learning by rote”. Parents make the story theirs, and picture and imagine each part. Then, when they pass the story to the young child, a connection is made where the child can live in those pictures. Only then, can the child receive the story in reverence. A connection between the heart of the parent and the heart of the child is created, and the child’s soul and spirit are nourished.
When hearing a story, children can create their own imaginary pictures, just as the parent has done. These pictures are not materialized or imposed upon the children. The children are free to create what is necessary for them, in their own life and development, and dream in a healthy way into the stories.
In a Waldorf classroom, the same story is repeated many times. The younger the child, the longer the period of time during which the same story will be repeated. The parent (or teacher in this case) memorizes the story ahead of time and tells the child the same story at least three days in a row. The first day the child automatically focuses on the plot. The second, they know what will happen, so they sit and enjoy creating the images in their mind, and the third day they should remember the story and depending on their age, perform the story (puppet shows and the like) or act in out through play (creating artwork, imaginary play, etc…).
Children love to hear stories again and again. It can give them security and allow them to enter more deeply and imaginatively into the content and language of the story. It allows them to relax for they feel held by a continuum which is extremely nourishing to them. Repetition gives order to children’s worlds, which they need in order to grow in the healthiest fashion. Unlike adults, a child needs time to brood over a story and let it really sink in, or they will not understand it. If they can create the story in their minds, which is usually done through sleep, they will be able to see the images more clearly and remember the story better by the third day. This boosts their creativity and thinking levels. It increases their ability to understand words and their meanings by associating them with the pictures they have created. It teaches things in a pictorial way, which is necessary for children.
What types of stories should parents tell their children? According to Nancy Mellon in her book Storytelling With Children, there are three main types of stories. They are:
- The Story of What Happened Today: This is an opportunity for parents to warmly put into words what happened during their child’s day in an effort to help them make sense of it as a whole. Children LOVE to hear stories in which they are the central character and relating it to a recent event makes it that much more interesting and exciting. A two minute story about the walk you took to the park will make a young child smile in remembrance. I quick anecdote about the fun time your child had on the swing at the park with be met with squeals of delight. These stories need not be complex or filled with extra imaginary. They should be true to life and simplistic.
- Bringing Your Personal and Family Stories To Life: Children live in the present. It isn’t until sometime around age six that they really give thought to their parents having a life before their arrival. Although young children will see your past as lost in a gray cloud, you can still use your experiences and personal memories as storytelling material. Relate it to your child. For example, if your child is sick, tell them a story about how your mother used to take care of you when you were ill. If you are working in the garden, share a story about how you and your father used to tend to the garden every spring. Around age six, children will become very interested in significant lessons learned by you during your childhood. They will want to hear stories about how you were raised, acts of kindness you engaged in, what sorts of “trouble” you got into, how you dealt with issues at school, and a myriad of other topics. Encourage your child’s quest to learn about your past by weaving your experiences into vivid stories.
- Spontaneous Storytelling: This draws upon your creativity as a parent. Imagination, passion, and confidence in your capability as a storyteller come into play here. There are no set topics, plotlines, or characters. Draw upon your inner child and spin a tale filled with wonder. Try not to get bogged down with reason. Let your storytelling be adventurous, warm, and spirited.
I would add a fourth and fifth category to Nancy Mellon’s types of stories. The first is Stories To Guide Children Through Challenging Times. These types of stories would be used to help a child understand a more serious event that has occurred, such as the death of a pet or family member. Other topics could be the arrival of a new baby, moving to a new house, or the onset of a disability.
My fifth category would be Stories To Guide Children Through Challenging Behavior. These stories would address a specific behavior that your child is exhibiting. These might include teasing, physical aggressiveness, lying, stealing, or bullying. In both categories, the stories can draw upon all three of Nancy Mellon’s types of stories at once in addition to being something completely separate.
Another alternative to reading stories is to memorize classic fairy tales as well as some of your favorite stories from childhood. Remember, children do not need pictures to enjoy the story. Their minds are brilliantly creating images as your prose flows. Memorizing stories is not as difficult as you might think. Give yourself three days to learn the basic story. (You need not have it memorized word for word. The general idea and main details is enough to engage your storytelling ability). Read the story three times a day for three days, preferably in the late afternoon, early evening, and before you go to sleep. Sleeping on the story will allow your mind to digest the content and commit it to memory. For most adults, it takes three days with three nights of sleep to memorize a story.
Having said all of this, it does not negate the need to read good quality literature to your children! This is a wonderful activity and should happen at least once a day! Read at lunch or rest time, read at family time after dinner, read aloud and enjoy the great works of brilliant minds and poetic writers. But TELL the stories, for the sake of the children, the majority of the time. And remember, telling stories can take place anytime, anywhere, for any reason, or for no reason at all.
When I am not weaving tales, what are some of our favorite books you ask? Well, check out these treasures for bedtime. They are all beautifully illustrated with simply, timeless, warm and inviting storylines. Take a look at our favorites with links to purchase them from my affiliate partner, Amazon:
Hush: A Thai Lullaby by Minfong Ho
Lala Salama: A Tanzanian Lullaby by Patricia MacLachlan
Animals Are Sleeping by Suzanne Slade
It’s Time For Bed by Mem Fox
One Love by Cedella Marley
Haiku Baby by Betsy Snyder
God’s Dream by Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Buddha at Bedtime by Dharmachari Nagaraja
A Ride On Mother’s Back by Emery and Durga Bernhard
Mama’s Milk by Michael Elsohn Ross
I Will Hold You Till You Sleep by Linda Zuckerman
Sleepy, Oh So Sleepy by Denise Fleming
Do you practice the art of storytelling or do you prefer to stick to books? What are your favorite tales? What are your favorite books?