My family, along with a small group of other adults and children, formed a semicircle in the shadowy quiet of a reconstructed Indian encampment earth lodge at a children’s nature center. Christine Freeman, an employee, had been guiding us through the lifestyle of the Kanza Indians, showing us how the Plains tribe crafted bows and arrows and used turtle shells for soup bowls and as calendars.
She reached over and picked up the skin. “This is actually a raccoon,” she said as she placed it over her shoulder. Sitting down, she ran her hand along the fluffy, circled tail. “If you have time for a story, I’ll tell you how the animals worked out night and day,” she said. We all leaned in a little closer.
Listening to Freeman recount the myth about the animals, we learned how the Indians taught their children about why days are split into nighttime and daytime hours.
Freeman, who is also a mom of two adult sons, knows that when she weaves information into a story, her audience is more likely to listen and retain the information. “Storytelling is ageless. It appeals to everyone,” she says. “With children, it’s a great way to catch their attention.”
Learn through storytelling
Stories put our experiences into perspective, comforting us with the knowledge that we aren’t alone in our human experiences. Stories serve to entertain, inspire, teach compassion and other values, and stoke admiration and respect for the generations of individuals who came before us. Studies also show storytelling enhances a child’s language development, emergent reading, and comprehension skills.
“A story is a way to be in connection with our children and be in empathy and sympathy with them without giving advice or laying down the law,” says Robin Moore, professional storyteller and author of “Creating a Family Storytelling Tradition: Awakening the Hidden Storyteller.”
A penny for your thoughts?
Nicole Keck, mom of three boys, ages 6, 4, and 2, finds storytelling is like a window into her children’s minds. Her sons take turns telling stories before bedtime. “[The stories] may be funny or serious, true or fiction. We like that it gives us precious insights into what they’re thinking about,” Keck says. “Knowing what makes them tick is an invaluable tool in guiding and supporting them. Besides, they’re very witty and it’s just great entertainment!”
Just like imaginative play, stories help children sort through problems and work through issues. “The more stories kids can relate to others, the more ability they have to use their imagination and to become problem solvers,” says Joyce Slater, artistic director for the Kansas City Storytelling Celebration, performing arts teacher, and a Missouri Touring Performer for the Missouri Arts Council.
Research suggests that families who tell stories report higher levels of happiness, closeness, and adaptability.
“My favorite thing about storytelling has to be showing my kids how fun it is to really embrace one’s own creativity and to not be shy about exploring and sharing one’s imagination,” says Kevin Doyle, a children’s book author and father of two, ages 7 and 3. He began telling stories to his daughter when she was just a toddler.
Doyle’s children especially desire imaginative, adventurous stories with pretend characters. “Those are my favorite to think up and the kids’ favorites to hear. Bedtime is our primary story time. That’s the best time to unwind and help everyone relax,” he says.
As a staff writer for Knowonder.com, an online children’s story site, Doyle knows a thing or two about spinning yarns that appeal to kids. But you don’t have to be a professional storyteller to entertain your kids with your tales.
Tell life stories
Kids love to hear about parents’ adventures when they were kids. Family stories, in particular, shape a child’s understanding of his family’s values, a sense of right and wrong, and appropriate social behavior, both in the family and in the world.
“One of the stories that kids should always know is the story about their birth,” Slater says. “‘What was the day like? Who was there? Why do I have this name?’ It becomes a real self-identifying process if you know how you came into being and why somebody chose your name.”
Most of all, storytelling creates space for you to connect with your children. Begin with books. “Find a subject that you like, read the story, and then talk about it. It’s a great way to open up a conversation with your children,” Freeman says. “Listen to each other. Sometimes we don’t listen enough. There’s nothing wrong with just sitting and talking.”
Freelance journalist Christa Melnyk Hines thinks it’s magical how the question “Can I tell you a story?” turns her two rambunctious sons into captive listeners.
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