“Are you going to tell me another story tonight?” asked my 4-year-old son.
While we read books and sing songs every night before bed, I recently decided to try storytelling. No pictures or props, just a few fables I told to my kids — full of extra details and hand motions as the story got more exciting. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Making the characters I grew up with take random turns (the hare needed to stop for ice cream! yum!) or adding sound effects and animal noises left my kids intently listening to every word. But I never would have guessed that the next morning my son would be still thinking about it and requesting an encore.
I’ve always considered our time reading books and talking about the things that happened in our day a good way to connect. Often, my husband or I will grab the latest library book, exploring new characters, pictures, and adventures. Storytelling though seemed to spark something new in each of us.
Why does telling stories matter?
Reading is important for all ages and has been well-researched for its many benefits, but is there a difference with storytelling? Not to be confused with story reading, storytelling has its own techniques and advantages.
Storytelling is spoken without the use of physical pictures and often includes more eye contact between the storyteller and the listener. Dr. Rebecca Isbell, an early childhood education speaker, author, and storytelling expert, did a study comparing story reading and storytelling with preschoolers and then replicated the same study 20 years later. Both studies found that the children who had stories told to them comprehended the stories better, retold the stories better, and had a higher level of attentiveness compared to those who had the stories read to them.
Storytelling connects your child to their imagination and new ideas while also engaging them through the use of words and actions. In “Molly of Denali,” when the teacher is about to tell a story to the class, she reminds the children to “make pictures with your minds.” When visualizing a told story, research shows children are activating their brains in a different way than with a picture book. Benefits of storytelling include enhanced imagination, increased vocabulary, and improved communication skills.
Beyond the mental and educational benefits, storytelling can connect children with their parents or grandparents as stories get passed down from generation to generation. Sharing personal stories or stories about your heritage can bond you together. Or, stories can also be a moment of creativity between you. My kids love it when their grandpa tells them made up stories that feature them as the main characters — tromping through the woods and ready for adventure. Storytelling with my kids’ grandparents has mostly been via FaceTime lately, but we’re all glad for that meaningful connection, even from a distance.
Here are ideas to practice storytelling with your child:
Pick a good story. Children need something with a clear beginning, middle, and end so they can learn the arc and narrative of a story. Choosing something with an action and a moral can leave a lasting impact. Classics like “The Tortoise and the Hare” or “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” are stories you might already know that you embellish as the storyteller. Kids also love hearing personal stories from your childhood, or try making up stories together.
Engage with your child. Act out the voices if you can and add sound effects, even if you’ll likely never make it on Broadway. Emphasize a repetitive phrase that comes up at certain points in the story, inviting you child to join in each time. Maintain eye contact with the listeners. Make animated faces or gestures. Change the pace of the story to build tension. All of this helps your child understand the story better and keeps their attention.
Ask questions. Before you tell the story, give prompts to set their minds for listening by saying something such as, “Listen to what the character does that’s brave.” Then discuss the story after telling it. Ask questions like, “Can you believe this happened?” or “How did you feel when…?” and “What do you think this story means?” This promotes critical thinking as they process what they heard. Questions may also indicate what they didn’t understand. After listening to the Molly of Denali podcast, my four-year-old son and I looked up locations and things he hadn’t heard of (like pictures of Alaska and a bird call) to provide more context.
Have your child retell the story. Retelling the story shows what they comprehend, and gives your child the opportunity to share their own perspective. Encourage them to tell the same story to another family member or friend. Adding helpful prompts like, “And then what happened?” helps children remember the story arc and structure while retelling. You can also retell the same story again to them later, adding in new details or surprises.
Create together. Another way to retell the story is by drawing or creating something in relation to the story. While listening to the third season of the Molly of Denali podcast, which tells the story of preparing for a big dog sled race, my son built a miniature dog sled out of blocks. Following up with crafts and activities lets your kids interpret and explore the characters, settings, and concepts further.
Storytelling, reading books together, and building vocabulary in creative ways all help with cognitive growth and language development in young children. Dr. Isbell encourages parents not to get overwhelmed by the idea of storytelling, adding, “It doesn’t need to be perfect.” Children love hearing stories and before you know it, they’ll be the ones telling you stories!