Rebecca and I make up stories in secret. I hear we’re not the only parents and children who do that, but how would I know? Joining a practice without much personal precedent is an eerie feeling. When you first start, you’re waiting for someone to catch you and tell you you’re doing it wrong, and at the same time you’re like two teenagers who’ve just reinvented the kiss. Then, seven or eight months later, it’s become a normal part of life and you write a blog post about how it works. If you’ve done much tabletop roleplaying, you can probably see echoes of those creative processes in how I tell stories to Rebecca, since that’s my background, too. If you come at storytelling from a different direction, tell me about it in the comments!
1. Getting Started With Toys. If you want to make up stories with your toddler or preschooler and don’t know where to start, try finger puppets or other toy props. They provide a visual focus, but even more useful, they give the storyteller a set of characters to work with. Finger puppets tend to be iconic little critters, which means they tap into a set of stereotyped dramatic characters–for instance, a bear might be grumbly or a parrot loudmouthed. Let the characters start talking to each other and you’ll find that one of them wants something or has a problem, ideally a problem or desire that’s familiar to your child from her or his own life. From there the story virtually tells itself.
It might also be fun to walk finger puppets through the background of your favorite books. What catches their interest? With the right book, sometimes you can spin another tale alongside the main story. Or let the finger puppets read the book alongside you and see what they say about it. For example, our friend Bear is primarily interested in spotting other bears in a book, and he’s constantly misidentifying non-bears as his distant relatives. Both these activities scaffold perspective-taking and empathy.
2. What Now? If you’re telling a story and you don’t know what happens next, declare, “And then something happened!”–or “Something horrible happened!” or “Something wonderful happened!” Ask your child what it was. Or else, if you’re not enjoying the story because it feels too dry and obvious, try briefly switching into rhyme or meter. Finding rhymes helps add unexpected elements to the story.
3. Go For the Good Stuff. Tell stories that reflect what’s interesting or important to you. Our favorite story seeds come from family history, culinary history (“A long time ago there were no potatoes in Europe…”), and religion. These are stories where you already know the central facts, so you can concentrate on tailoring the details and emphasis to your audience. The best part for me is watching Rebecca make these stories her own and draw on them in play. For example, after she heard the Easter story, she built a cave over a dead bee in the garden and rolled a plastic strawberry over the cave door.
4. For Your Child in Distress. Stories can help with emotional processing when your child’s upset. (This is something I know first-hand, because I used to do the same thing with indie tabletop roleplaying.)
A few months ago, some friends came by to pick up our housemates for a fancy dinner, and Rebecca was devastated that she couldn’t go with them. I held her and talked about how she felt, and she cried and cried. She seemed to be feeling worse through the crying instead of better, though. So I held up two fingers and started telling her a story about how Ringman and Birdie went out to a nice dinner without Pinky. Rebecca got very quiet, and I continued: At the restaurant everyone was wearing fancy clothes and having grown-up conversations. There were little candles on the tables and waiters walking around with plates of bread for anyone who wanted it. But when Ringman looked around the room, there were no children there, and Ringman missed Pinky so much that he ran home to see her and hugged her all up. When I finished, I told the story again in more detail. After a couple iterations, Ringman still felt sad and missed Pinky, but now he was taking pictures of all the food so that he could show them to Pinky when he got home. In another version, he took Pinky with him and tried to hide her under the table–and so on, getting more and more lighthearted until Rebecca felt alright again.
Think of this as telling the story of a friend who’s been in a situation similar to your child’s, not as a direct analog for your child or how your child should act. It’s harder for emotional processing to happen if the story is transparently identical to your child’s situation–then there’s no space to step back and get perspective–or if there’s a strong message about how emotions should be handled. When you’re co-telling sensitive stories with adults, the key is being respectful, and I think the same thing applies to children’s stories. I include lots of dramatic details about how the characters are feeling, and try not to rush into a happy ending. Sometimes I run a couple endings past Rebecca and see which one is right.
Let me note, if you use this technique successfully, your child will very quickly become attached to your fingers or whatever other characters you use.
5. For Your @*$!@ Recalcitrant Child. It’s easy to get manipulative with these stories. The first time I did that was when we were travelling. I really needed Rebecca to pee, and she wasn’t inclined to, so I told a 3 minute long story whose punchline was that Pinky wanted to swim in yellow water. She thought for a second, and climbed on the toilet. (Pinky didn’t really get to swim in the yellow water though–that part was just pretend.) I felt mad with rhetorical power, but of course the reason it worked was that it also empowered Rebecca. A good manipulative story reframes the power dynamics of a situation, so that your preschooler can fantasize that she’s acted independently, gotten the upper hand, foiled someone’s nefarious plan, or moved higher on the social totem pole, all by doing what you want. It helps kids save face instead of getting into a power struggle. Not as good as giving kids more autonomy for real, but in situations where there really isn’t a choice, this can help smooth things over.
6. How to Make Repeat Stories More Interesting. Don’t worry about getting the story “right” the first time or even the third time; you just need it to resonate with your child. If you do that, you’ll have plenty more opportunities to get the details down later.
Thinking about children’s storytelling as a genre, the key feature is that a compelling story will be requested more than once. You might start out by thinking of your stories as being like stories in a book, with a discreet repeatable narrative. But when you start to treat iterations of a story as a stream or process–not mere repetition–it opens up a different set of experiences for the storyteller and audience. A slow shift in details can give the story a dreamlike feeling. A circular story can get funnier and more exuberant each time you tell it. If there’s a particular story or type of story your child likes, it can be entertaining to keep thinking up pretexts for it to happen again, or to transpose it to other settings (the Good Samaritan with trains, anyone?). I’m also starting to work on migrating descriptive motifs back and forth between personal stories to religious stories. I’m hoping to cultivate a sense that these stories are intertwined, and that our ancestors and the divine are present in the rhythms of our lives. In any case, meaning and emotional impact happen by juxtaposing iterations of the story as much as they happen within the story itself. That makes this kind of storytelling different than other mediums I’ve worked with.
7. Get Your Child Involved. Make storytelling interactive. Encourage your child to ask questions when they want more details. Or when your child makes a suggestion, say yes to the idea and run with it. This is something else I learned from indie tabletop roleplaying: the process of creative collaboration with lots of “yes!” builds closeness, increases creative confidence, gives you insight into your collaborators, and usually results in something more quirky and interesting than you would’ve come up with by yourself. But beyond that, I’m trying to help Rebecca develop her own storytelling abilities, because telling stories well is one of the most important social skills you can have, for entertaining other people, building empathy, and transmitting your experiences. I really hope Rebecca is better at it than I am.
8. What About You? So, who else here improvises stories with little kids? Can you tell me what it looks like? What kinds of stories, and has that changed over time? How much child input do you get, and at what points in the story? Do you have any tricks for coming up with story ideas or jumpstarting your creativity?