Storytelling and Creating for Primary Age Children


Which stories?
Creating and Improvising
Blood and Guts
Variations on the Narrative form
Working with Anecdote
Working with Metaphor
From oral to written


Storytelling is an extremely useful classroom activity and, given how much we use storytelling in our day to day lives, one would expect it to be a whole lot easier than some people find it to be. Telling a story over the kitchen table about ‘what happened at work today’ or in the playground about ‘what Miss Teacher did when Billy let the frog go in the classroom’ is so matter of fact that we don’t even notice how we do it. Doing it in the classroom can sometimes seem daunting however. I think there are two main factors of our culture that contribute to this difficulty and these need to be taken into account to make storytelling the creative and entertaining classroom medium it can be.

The first is the culture of competitiveness and criticism that pervades our society. Who is going to risk being creative and expressive if we’re only going to be criticised for our efforts? The second is what storytelling have we experienced as we’ve grown up. If part of your family, preschool and school experience has been listening to many stories told by interesting storytellers then children will enjoy and appreciate the narrative form with all it’s niceties of character, setting and plot development. If your life has been filled with cartoons, video games and blockbuster ‘meet-a-stranger-and-kill-him’ movies then no one should be surprised if you aren’t very appreciative of more general storytelling. Likewise sex role stereotyping quickly takes its toll on most boys’ interest in any stories that don’t explore the violence that is such a pervasive part of their socialisation.

These two lead to, what I like to call, the culture of minimalisation which is alive and well in our community and schools. It is partly the effect of the culture of competition and criticism but is also related to sex role stereotyping of boys and girls (eg boys aren’t meant to be emotive and girls aren’t meant to be loud or powerful). The culture leads to boys and girls becoming less and less expressive and creative as they get older - being ‘cool’ is more important amongst their peer group then being creative and expressive. So basically if we want to encourage creative expression in a school culture we need to keep the above in mind while we work with students. We need to create classroom cultures that contradict the above and provide alternatives that allow teachers and students to feel safe and supported when they are being creative and expressive.

Which stories?
How do we tell stories in such a way that as many people as possible can enjoy them given that a typical class is a glorious mixture of the above factors? One way is to have faith in the narrative form. It has survived for so long because it is successful. Storytelling does work with even the most video jaded 13 year old if it is done with reasonable technique and if one selects stories appropriate for your audience.

Stories survive the centuries or become popular best selling junior fiction because:
they address issues that the listeners need to have addressed, and because
they do it in entertaining, respectful and empowering ways.

In some ways this is a bit of a big ask for adults but in other ways it’s pretty easy. The best children’s authors say that to be able to write for children you have to be able to remember what it was like to be that age and then write with that in mind. Well it’s the same with storytelling. The more you are able to enter the world of the particular age group you are telling to and put those priorities, feelings and concerns into your storytelling the easier it will be.

Selecting stories for primary age students is a wonderful balance between your own beliefs, the needs of the curriculum and the restrictions of increasingly inflexible social models of the age groups and subcultures. The most useful themes for primary age children are ‘adventure’, ‘mystery and magic’, ‘new and curious settings and characters’. A good story might have all of these and will address in metaphor or otherwise an issue or issues of importance to the age group. Stories of ‘finding ones place in the world’, ‘dealing with authority structures or characters’, ‘competition’, ‘gaining knowledge or power in fun ways’, ‘sex role stereotyping’ (for older primary) are examples. Students can make recommendations and you can select from them.

Creating and Improvising
Creating and improvising stories might seem a bit scary but it’s a pretty natural skill that we all use as we converse, teach and socialise. We improvise as we read stories anyway and the step to improvising new material is not all that big. One of the things that makes it all a lot easier is the fact that no story is so sacred that it can’t be changed in some way. Within the oral tradition we are able retell all stories in our own words to make them more appropriate for an age group. After all, the written sacred texts such as the Bible are re-presented all the time for different age groups, cultures etc. Sometimes it is as simple as changing the beginning of a story. The story doesn’t have to start in a traditional way like ‘Once upon a time’. I’ve always liked the beginning to Mr. Fox ‘Lady Mary was young and Lady Mary was fair and Lady Mary had more suitors (or boyfriends) than she could count.’ It always gets a giggle from boys and girls. Developing one’s improvisational skills is a useful undertaking for adapting stories for different audiences.

Keeping a narrative structure such as ‘character, setting, problem, resolution’ in mind is important. There are lots of ways to use that particular structure, for example:
introduce a character,
develop that character with the level of description you want your students to use,
develop the setting to some degree,
introduce a second character,
create a problem ( this could be around status, a feature of the environment you have created, or a feature of one of the characters, or a class room issue or cross curriculum possibility)
then improvise towards a resolution by having the characters interact

You can add some spice to this process by, as you’re telling a story, encouraging your class to make suggestions about what happens next and then incorporating those suggestions into the story. You can do this in a range of ways depending at what stage of oral creativity they are at. At first it’s good to incorporate any suggestion into the story. This is empowering for the participants. The story becomes theirs. Any suggestion they make is a good one. Then you can start encouraging embellishment. For example you incorporate those suggestions that have good character or setting description or action that is accompanied by dramatic language etc. The most important thing though is that you say ‘Yes!’ and incorporate suggestions as they are presented without getting into competition or judgment too much. This creativity rubs off onto their own individual story creation of course.

Use of ‘character, setting, problem’ cards is a handy of way of encouraging students’ use of this narrative form. The two obvious ways of structuring this exercise (or game) are:
spreading the cards out in sections and allowing students to choose two character cards, one or two setting cards, and one problem card or
making it a lottery and either selecting cards for them or dealing cards at random.

Both of these can be made more dramatic by taking on a mystical character role who, eg, deals them out cards that will enable them to escape from the Temple of Doom if they can create a suitably dramatic story etc. This is a good small group or team activity.

Asking the class to create their own character and setting cards and using them is a neat advance.

Blood and Guts
Mind you, if given free reign to create their own stories, they will often fall back on what issues they are currently exploring at that age. They will use story creation and storytelling to explore these issues. As well some boys will see whether they can make you blanch or gag as they spread the guts and gore of victims over the setting and the girls will bring the characters back to life again and create new ones as fast as the boys can kill them. This might be a bit boring to our adult sensibilities and sophistication but it is useful for them and so is worth exploiting for educational and creative purposes.

For example, even though most boys will get a laugh out of one of them saying ‘there was blood everywhere’, they will be quite inactive around describing it accurately and totally leave out any effect it may have on the other characters in the story. It’s quite a turn around for them when you say something like - “Yes! How much blood? What colour was it? What did it remind the character of? If this blood was alive what would it say? If this blood could dance what dance would it do? What happened to it? Who did it land on? What did they do? How?” Shifting their pleasure from that of shocking the adult audience or the girls to playing with the words in a creative way is a wonderful development that can easily spread to other creativity. The challenge for us as adults is to let go of our boredom, or annoyance quickly enough to be able to make the most of the moment.

One of the things I often say to the boys in particular is that they might find the ‘Terminator’ movie blockbusters exciting but that is because the producers have millions of dollars to spend on creating explosions, special effects, car crashes, gadgetry etc. When we try to tell a ‘meet- a-stranger-and-kill-him’ type story we can’t just duplicate the story line of the movie because we haven’t got the millions for the special effects. We have to use the tools we have got with us - the tools of our voice, our body, our language and our creative mind and if we use all these we can make a story just as entertaining as a block buster.

Another challenge is presented when girls duplicate the sweet, everything is just lovely, fairy, horse, girls best friend story they get from somewhere or other without any or little personal additions or colour. Getting them to start a story with a problem can have some effect here. Another possibility is getting them to play with extremes of character description - 'the biggest giant in the world who .........'

Variations on the narrative form
Interesting ways to rework stories can be easily achieved by varying the order of the narrative form. Starting the story with the setting is a great way to create stories with a local flavour. Describing the local billabong with loving detail or the graffiti on the wall beside the freeway as semi’s and cars flash by is going to both, ground the story in local experience, and set the feel of the story.

Starting the story with a problem in emotional and expressive words can really capture an audience’s attention and provide a useful structure for a student group to explore issues as they create the characters and settings necessary to provide a resolution that is entertaining. 'There was a time when the sun did not shine and the sky was so dark that all the animals had to crawl and hop carefully around to avoid falling over a cliff or crashing into a tree or rock.'

Working with anecdote
Another powerful way of working with storytelling in the class is with anecdote. Encouraging the students to tell the stories of their own life is not only acknowledging the value of their lives but also giving many opportunities to be creative with language. Of course one of the blocks to working with the anecdote is people’s fear that their stories won’t be good enough or that they will be criticised for the content of their story.

I usually get around the first objection by telling stories from my own life and by starting off with warm up games that gradually introduce the participants to more and more story content. Probably more important though is instituting a couple of rules that reinforce valuing each others stories.

These usually include:

everyone listens during someone else's story, and
only positive feedback ‘What did you like about the story? What did he/she do well? What worked?’

I encourage students to tell stories a number of times and to experiment with ways of making them more interesting. After a while it’s also useful to ask the student what storytelling techniques they are going to include in their next telling. After students get more confident with technique you are able to introduce a whole range of possibilities. Accessing anecdotes can be done around themes - place, activities, times, or with objects or photographs, or collecting stories from other family members etc. One of the best ways though is just being reminded of an event by someone else's story.

Working with metaphor
Telling fables and folktales can provide a good introduction to the use of metaphor. Discussion after the storytelling allows students to express their understanding of the metaphors, symbols etc used in the story. Be prepared to be flexible with the telling (or reading) however. Fables and folktales have fallen victim to the different values of cultures over the centuries, not to mention the effect of translation and publishing and may need to be reworked for them to be enjoyable for today’s audiences.

Working with character development can help develop the idea of metaphor in stories. One can ask students to think of characters in stories that are usually powerful, or meek, or tricky etc. A second stage could be to ask students to think of what sort of characters would one combine to illustrate a saying such as ‘the meek shall inherit the earth’ and then to create a story with those characters.

Another exercise is that of telling the beginning of a traditional story such as ‘King for a Year’ or ‘A single grain of rice’ and asking students to discuss likely endings to the story and then tell the story. Creating modern versions of these stories can be fun.

From oral to written
Oral storytelling is a wonderful starting place for encouraging literary creativity as well. The main reasons are that the oral is much more familiar way of creating and with storytelling one doesn’t have to worry about or juggle the demands of writing, spelling, punctuation and grammar while attempting to be creative. One of the things to watch for is students losing the expressiveness of a story when they write it down. One way to point out that change is to tape students' stories so that they can refer to them again and rewrite their story appropriately. Once students are getting their oral creations down in a written form you can start talking about the creative writing process. How does one duplicate rhythm, tone of voice, expressiveness etc in the written form?

An obvious addition to writing out a story is to illustrate it as well. Photocopying and binding will give one a cheap in-house publication. For some students, doing the illustration first will lead to an oral story and then a written one. A publication project gives students lots of possible roles with heaps of cross curriculum possibilities. These can include marketing the publication and promoting it by telling stories from it to different community or school groups. It can be very effective at self esteem building. Having an official launch of the publication is not only empowering for the whole school community but also provides funds to put into the next creative project. Publishing student stories on the school’s or some one else's World Wide Web site adds other creative project possibilities.

Performance outcomes are just as valuable as publication. Increases in self esteem, communication skills, confidence taking pride etc are all so valuable to achieve with a performance goal. Students might create, practice and tell stories in the school library to fellow students during lunch time. After that they can do public performances in the mall or retirement village or community radio or television. There are a lot of roles such as compere, public relations, photographer that can be experienced by students. Outcomes like these build sense of pride, community and self for the school as well as the local community.

Bringing a storyteller into the class room to work with students and teaches can be a good first step in a powerful process.

work on developing a class or school culture where creativity is supported, encouraged and protected from criticism and competition
be prepared to tell and work on stories about themes that are relevant and exciting to the age group
the narrative structure itself provides a good structure for working on stories but be prepared to introduce and play with variations
working with personal anecdote with local settings and characters is empowering and gives students a useful focus
make use of students' preoccupations such as 'blood and guts' and 'the perfect friend' to move them into areas such as character development, simile and metaphor
publication and performance goals provide many empowering outcomes for individuals, schools and communities
be prepared to relax and model creativity and expressiveness for your students.

© 1998 Daryll Bellingham. One copy of the above notes are available for your personal use for developing your storytelling skills. If you would like to copy, distribute or publish them, in whole or in part, please seek my permission.

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Daryll Bellingham, Storyteller
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Last update: 12th February, 2004.
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