Storytelling with Three to Five year olds

Three to five year old children are a wonderful age group to tell stories to. They make excellent use of good stories and good storytelling.They enjoy them with a full range of emotions, ask for story after story, thank you with a big hug and then go out to play. On top of that, they’ll probably act out one or more of the stories for days afterwards. What more could you ask for?

How to tell
There’s many different styles of telling stories that will work with this age group but there are some general principles that apply to all storytelling. These are covered in my ‘Bringing a Story Alive’ notes but can be summarised as:

warm your audience up to a storytelling session and to the stories that you will probably tell
select a good space or venue and a good time to tell stories (cut out or down distractions)
use familiar structures to help your audience relax and enter the world of imagination and fun eg the familiar story beginning ‘Once upon a time’
bring stories alive with expression of feelings, characters that speak in their own voices, interesting settings, definite problems to solve and of course resolutions
put lots of variety of pace, volume and movement in your telling (quiet moments after energetic sections can be the most effective parts of a story)
find ways to involve your audiences in the stories eg repeated phrases such as ‘Run. Run as fast as you can. You can’t catch me. I’m the Gingerbread Man.’ or by getting them to add sound effects such as lions roaring or horns blowing.

This age group loves to have fun and this is the big clue for adults wanting to tell stories to them. Having fun with stories usually means you have to tell with a fun energy. Be energetic, tricky, silly, loving, appreciative and relaxed.

Sometimes this might feel a little embarrassing, but, just remember how much you loved to play when you were young and remember, this age group is the most accepting and appreciative of all audiences.

Types of stories
Three to five year olds have now mastered the basics of the spoken language and really enjoy exploring it. You can tell ‘real’ stories to them with characters, settings, plots etc.

Stories that use imaginary characters (eg - fairies, pirates, ghosts, robbers, heroes ) or that use animals (eg Three Billy Goats Gruff ) to explore issues are really popular. This is probably because using animals or imaginary characters displaces the issue to a space where it feels safe to explore it and its ramifications.

This age group is exploring the world around it by venturing out in different ways. It has to deal with a whole lot of issues, things and people as it does so. They like stories about dealing with monsters and lions and dinosaurs. Four to five year old also like, among other things, stories about setting up their own worlds, reaching out and exploring eg ‘Three Little Pigs’.

Just as important however are stories that validate their experience. These can be stories that you improvise or create about events in their lives or from the family or playgroup experience (eg the time everybody went to the zoo and saw the monkeys splash water every where). Stories from your own life or family are usually enjoyed especially by the four to five year olds.

Improvising
This age group make up their own stories all the time and love it when an adult does the same. You can use a whole lot of improvising techniques with 4-5 year and older children. It is easy, if you follow a few rules and make good use of narrative structure - character, setting, problem and resolution - to structure your stories.

See my notes on ‘Creating and Improvising stories for Children’ for a whole range of suggestions.

Three to four year olds love improvising as well but you might have to provide a bit more structure for them. This can include using a puppet or an object or building a story around something that is well known such as a nursery rhyme.

Reading or telling
Reading stories to three to five year olds is important as with all age groups but it is a more passive experience then storytelling. Over dependence on reading doesn’t encourage a full development of creativity and communication skills. Further down the spectrum of course is dependence on TV or video for entertainment and stimulation. It leads to a very passive, linear and limited creativity. Storytelling encourages audiences to create their own images, feelings and responses to go along with the stories. This multi-faceted creativity carries over to all forms of creativity.

I believe that a mix of told, read, watched, acted, played, painted etc stories on a regular basis is the way to go. Setting up a regular storytime that fits in with other activities also enable you to add a range of different ways of involving children as story and theme suggesters, storytellers, improvisers, comperes etc.

Older Children
A lot of storytelling techniques and stories loved by 3-5 year olds are also enjoyed by younger and older children (& adults). You will need different warm ups of course and older children are easily embarrased by energy and fun so ease back a little at the start. 'Storytelling and Creating for Primary Age Children' are useful notes for anyone working with older children.

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

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Daryll Bellingham, Storyteller
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Last update: 25th May, 2007.
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