How to encourage storytelling in children

Children’s books and how to encourage storytelling in young children by nurturing a love of reading. More on my blog Our Story Time ourstorytime.co.uk

Some of my family often ask me for help with their kids’ creative writing for school. This is not necessarily because they want their kids to be writers but because, well, from what I hear, school exams mark you on storytelling, especially exams for selective schools. That is to say, children are marked on writing a story, constructing a story, having an idea and presenting that idea.

A few friends have also asked me if I might coach their children, children older than mine, on creative writing too and several people have asked the same thing over social media. Now I’m a writer, an author and a mother, but I’m not a teacher. I don’t know if there are particular rules to follow that might guarantee success in an exam scenario and I suspect that’s what tutors are for (and boy, the north London scene is rife with tutoring).

The children’s books publisher Egmont recently published a report on children’s reading habits. In the study, Egmont outlines the benefits of reading for pleasure in terms of well being, educational attainment and parent-child bonding. And yet the same study also found that less than 30% of under-14s now read for pleasure. There are screens to blame, of course, but also the fact that parents stop reading to children when they become literate. And that, crucially, schools have made reading part of the curriculum, a target to achieve, rather than something that is enjoyable, exciting, imaginative and creative.

Based purely on my own experience of growing up, I believe reading stories for pleasure when you are young is what helps you learn to tell your own stories, even as a child.

I believe there are gentle ways to simply encourage storytelling in children without necessarily thinking about exams and academic success, by focusing instead on the imaginative side of storytelling, which is compromised of many components (language, expression, empathy, creativity), all of which are so, so important for a child’s development. With my kids still so small, the idea of writing stories for the sake of passing exams is far from my mind. I simply want them to enjoy how amazing stories can be.

As we head into the summer, I look forward to spending some time with my children while they rest, unwind, play and enjoy the lazy days of two months to be entirely free. But it’s important to me that we keep in touch with a little learning along the way, and so, sort of like a (very laid back) summer-homeschool, I’ll be setting up some practices in a gentle, background-sort of way. This includes reading and writing.

And so this is how I encourage storytelling in my own children and this is also how I intend to keep doing so over the summer break too. These ideas might be helpful for some of you in the same position, but please keep in mind my children are only small (aged 5, 4 and nearly 2 respectively!) so my experience in that way is limited while my experience in writing has been somewhat more lifelong:

How to encourage storytelling in children

Read

To be a storyteller, at any age, one must also be a reader. It’s the same advice I give all the students on my writing courses. So let them read. Read, read, read. Read to them. Even if they’re old enough to read themselves. Through reading stories they’ll eventually pick up what it is that makes a story - an idea, characters, a beginning, middle and end. It’s basic, but it’s the sort of concept that can be easily absorbed if you’re hearing it every single day.

But more than that, it’s exciting. Reading is exciting. Read more and you’ll soon want to tell your own stories. Children learn by imitation - let them write their own version of a story they already know off by heart. Let them absorb language so that they have the words they need to express themselves.

My children happen to love books and I don’t say that to sound obnoxious and I don’t say that because think I’ve done anything particularly brilliant or literary with them from birth (oh, God, no).

I think the reason they love books is just because they are lucky enough to always have a lot of books around, so invariably they end up looking through them. We get books from the library, from older cousins who are finished with this or that, and yes, I buy a lot of books too (more than I buy toys). So if I were to offer one piece of advice, it would be to let books be available to your kids. Stock up from the library, organise a little swap with friends to bring in some new stock over the summer. Let your children choose the books they want to read, but also feel free to gently guide them into subjects they perhaps have not considered but you know they’d be interested in. Keep a good mix of fiction and non-fiction, and introduce non-fiction even if they are young. My older children are five and four-years-old, and greatly prefer reading non-fiction books about the real world than they do stories, which is a surprise to me because I adore the poetry and rhythm and fantasy of picture book tales, but I’m happy to follow their lead.

Also, let them see you read for the sheer joy of it. My kids are quite used to be me reading while they play in the garden and because they know it’s something I enjoy, they’re less likely to see reading as a chore and more likely to also copy me and pick up their own books too. It never fails to warm me when I find them utterly lost in the pages of a book, deciphering words as they go. It makes me wonder if that’s what my mother found me doing too, when I was a child.

Watch and listen to stories too

From what I’ve seen at least, a child doesn’t always have to be reading to absorb stories. My kids pick up crazy imaginative ideas from little television shows (Dino Dana! Dino Dan!) and we also sometimes pop audiobook stories on in the car too. Cbeebies Radio has stories to stream, but the repertoire is a little old. There’s also a ton of playlists on Spotify that are worth a look. Some of them are full of Disney which may not be to everyone’s taste but these is also a podcast called Story Shed which tells new and original stories for children of all ages and also includes little ones talking about story themes too which could in turn encourage the same conversations at home too.

use art to tell a story

Children don’t need to be able to write in order to tell a story. Let them paint it instead. Or make it. It’s the expression of creativity and the telling of a tale that counts.

Make books

My mother told everyone at my book launch about the first book I wrote as a child. It was about a rabbit who lost his tail. I wrote, illustrated and bound it (she swears this is the only reason I got accepted at prep school). I did this sort of thing a lot (oh, man). All children love to make books of their very own. And it keeps them occupied for hours, too.

Be excited about it

Engage in the stories your kids produce. Ask them questions. Be outraged when one of their characters does something they really shouldn’t have. Often, my kids love to put on shows - it’s a long process - but they make up entire stories this way. As grown-ups, we sit and we watch and we must be enthralled and enrapt, and in this way they keep going.

Help your children express themselves

The more words children know, the easier it is for them to say what they mean and so the easier it’ll be for them to thread a story of their own together. Of course, reading helps with this but also so too does everyday speech. I talk to my kids the way I talk to, say, my husband - which is to say, I don’t oversimplify my words or what I mean just because they are young. My kids’ll often ask me what this or that word means mid-conversation and often, usually a couple of days later, I’ll hear them sticking that same word into a sentence themselves. With young kids at least, which is all my experience is based on, they love to do what we do and this means they love to speak like us too.

Of course, there are also more focused ways to do this, with flashcards and the like. Taking it to another level, Mrs Wordsmith helps children learn words through illustrations and has been a great investment in our household. It’s something I imagine we’ll be holding onto for a decade or so. It is costly, but that’s not to say you can’t also, if you have the time, make your own small scale version of this - my mother loves to tell everyone I learnt to read by the age of three (I suppose I was that kind of kid) because she made me a tin of words to read off homemade flashcards she lovingly and painstakingly created.

Play story games

Welcome to the Once Upon A Time, one sentence per person game. It’s basically the verbal form of that game we all used to play as kids, when you’d write a line down, fold it, pass it to the next person and so on and so on, until the page was complete and unravelled and ended up telling a funny story. To be clear, I don’t do this thinking: “This will encourage storytelling in my child!” but more because it lightens the mood and, yeah, it’s fun. We go around the table, and each of us gets to say one sentence to build our own story up. It’s super fun to hear what they come up with too.

PLAY my SIMILE GAME!

Sometimes I play this word game with my kids: “As quiet as a…?” I ask and back they yell with “A mouse! An engine with no fuel! Space!” I don’t know if this makes me sound like an eccentric writer but honestly, it fills the time in car journeys or over breakfast and it also just happens to be a rather lovely way to think, even unknowingly, about adjectives and similes and description and stuff. My favourite yet is “As happy as a goldfinch,” as coined by my middle child, and my aim is to one day get as happy as a goldfinch published in print somewhere. Simile is also a very funny word for preschoolers and has them in fits.

they dictate, you transcribe

My four-year-old tells the most dramatic stories. Buses turning the wrong way down the street in a panic, lions flooding bathrooms. He showed an early interest in writing, and so can write, but to write all these stories down would take him too long. I know he’d grow frustrated at not being able to write as quickly as the thoughts come into his head. So instead, I tell him he’s my boss and he gets to tell me what the story is and I write it down instead. It works brilliantly. He paces around me, dictating his story to me as though I am but a stagehand and he’s the great scriptwriter, dramatic flourishes of hand gestures as he goes. We end up with some pretty cool stories and what’s more, he’s super proud of it too.

Like I said, I’m no homeschooler and I’m not a teacher. If anyone else has ideas on encouraging storytelling amongst young children, I’d love to hear - please let me know in the comments below!

The beauty of the ordinary

string shelves lined with books in a living room with a little boy in front of them

A few days ago, someone who doesn’t know me very well asked me about this blog and what I write about. I was surprised at the question, which popped up at the school gates, because I am still uncomfortable with the idea of people knowing I even have a blog. My first instinct was suspicious. I wanted to enquire: How do you know I have a blog? But instead I simply said: I write about my everyday. I tell stories of the ordinary things in my life, incidental things that might only be small but are still somehow special to me. (Or something similar to that).

She looked me in the eye, and held my gaze steady. I smiled; her expression was entirely expressionless. As if it might offer clarity, then I simply said: I write about life. She raised an eyebrow. I felt delusional.

I knew what she was thinking for at times there’s a voice in my head that thinks it too. What about my life could be interesting enough to write about? What about my very ordinary day-to-day could be worth sharing? Why, when you have a chance to write and readers who read you, would you not write about the extraordinary? Surely the extraordinary is more interesting than your ordinary? And if you have nothing extraordinary in your life of which to write, then why not imagine it, make it up, write fiction, instead?

I also know better than to listen to that voice.

Here’s what I tell it, that voice that tells me I have nothing of consequence to write about, although I did not tell it to the person to whom I was talking at the time: I think the ordinary is underrated and the extraordinary far too overrated. The extraordinary might be juicy. It might be big, explosive, noisy, dramatic. It might hold our interest for a moment or two, for the length of a celebrity autobiography or a catchy headline. But extraordinary isn’t always real. It isn’t always meaningful. Extraordinary won’t last. It might, on a good day, be magical and mesmerising but it’s there and then it isn’t. It’s gone again before you know it. A click of the finger. Over, again.

But the ordinary. Oh, but the ordinary. It’s always there. It’s the touch of a hand in a small of a back. It’s the familiar smell of a baby’s neck. It’s a glance, shared across a train carriage. The familiarity of routine, the mere comfort of it. Or else it’s those words that break your heart, the tears that come from nowhere. It’s loss. It’s loneliness. It’s everything.

It’s in the ordinary that most of us live, and if I can’t find meaning in my most ordinary of everydays then, well, that leaves me feeling desperately sad. It is the ordinary that I know I’ll miss the most when it’s no longer there. The sound of his key in the door. The smell of a jumper. Little fingers, running through my hair. Evenings curled up on the sofa, a bowl of satay upon my lap; a hand to hold.

Beats of hearts.

*

Sometimes someone else’s ordinary does something to you. Makes you catch a breath or else the hairs on your arm stand up or your eyes grow damp or tears spill and you don’t quite know why. It’s empathy, but it’s more than that. It’s stretches deeper. It’s ordinary but majestic because it is real.

It threads us together. It reminds us we’re not the only ones.

Ordinary puts an arm around you. Catches your eye. Looks straight deep at you when you speak, and listens. Really listens. It doesn’t just sit there, playing with its phone, waiting for someone better to come along.

And so.

You might think your life is entirely ordinary. You might think you are just a stay-at-home mother, or have a boring lawyer job - nothing of any extraordinary substance, you might say. To you, I say: to hell with extraordinary. Ordinary makes the world go round. Ordinary, damn it, is extraordinary.

So I’ll tell the ordinary stories of my ordinary everyday as an ordinary woman. Because they matter to me. Because they might matter to someone else too.

I urge you too to tell your stories (indeed; I ask this of you in Postcards Home) because I need your ordinary.

We all do.

Will you join me?

Postcards Home is my online summer writing course on writing your first-person memories and in it, I write more about the beauty and the strength of writing about your ordinary. It’s designed to inspire you to want to write, to fall in love with writing, and to do it in a small, simple ways that aren’t overwhelming.

The next round of Postcards Home begins on Monday, July 1st, 2019.

or

The Days Pass Slowly But The Years Fly By. Or, how to beat time.

On motherhood and writing. Exploring personal narrative and writing memoir with children. An essay on motherhood and writing, on Our Story Time www.ourstorytime.co.uk

Not so long ago, I described time as a silk skirt twirling and swirling and falling in soft drapes but I’ll confess, lately, time feels a lot less romantic.

It hurtles past me, so close it might crush my feet, leaving nothing but a cloud of dust and tyre tracks behind. If time is a racing car, then my kids are the ones watching from the sidelines, waving little coloured flags and shrieking with delight: Go Faster! Faster! Faster!

If only they knew what they were wishing for.

Time feels different now than it did before I had children. Or, in my birthday month, let me put it another way: time feels different now than it did when I was younger.

Then, time moved, but it also existed in plentiful supply too. On the one hand, time couldn’t go fast enough for me, with the bright-eyed wilfulness that it takes to be seven or fifteen or seventeen or even twenty-one. I was impatient for it, always wanting to be at the next chapter of my life before the previous one had even begun. But on the other hand, another part of me always knew that eventually I’d get to where I needed to be. Another part of me trusted, somehow, that everything would unfold when it needed to. Because there was always time.

Then I had a baby and then another and another and suddenly time slowed right down. Life with a newborn baby lasts forever, only you are no longer quite as fearless faced with that sort of frightening, never-ending time. And it is never-ending; the long dark nights that tick, tick, tick and the dryness in your mouth sucked out of you by milk elsewhere.

Yet even in the thick of that milk and those blurry nights, everyone, everyone, tells you that time will go so fast, too fast. That they’ll grow up before we know it. It’s the cliché of parenthood. I used to roll my eyes at these platitudes On Time that friends would offer up while cooing over my days-old babies because in those early days, time was as painful as a sore latch, but now that my very last baby is a moving, climbing, talking toddler now, who needs haircuts more often than me, it is with a strange taste in my mouth that I realise what they mean.

The Days Pass Slowly But The Years Fly By (said every parent, everywhere). I have realised, however, that if you think about this for too long, it can sort of mess with your head. Because if you’re not careful, you’ll end up mourning for some sort of vague future you can’t even predict yet, before you realise you’re still in it. You’re still in time, this time, today’s time, right here, right now. Our hearts thumping, our limbs tangled in bedsheets. What is there to mourn, then, when we have all this dancing upon our fingertips?

I’ve decided, as I look ahead to celebrating my birthday in just a week, that I don’t want to mourn the future because I’m afraid of losing the present. I want to be excited by what’s to come, not worry about all that I might have lost by the time it comes around. I want to look back and remember every moment with the people I am lucky enough to know in my life: the boy whose green tea I accidentally took in a coffee shop one day and then married a couple of months later, the babies we brought into the world. I want to look to today, to now, and tomorrow, and find a way to enjoy every day we have made for ourselves.

Time has to fly by.

My kids have to grow up.

So do I.

And I want them to grow up, because they’re supposed to, because everyday gets better and better as they do, in so many ways. And though it may break my heart to see them move across oceans or travel into space or do whatever it is they want to do that takes them far, far away from me one day, it’ll also make my heart sing to see them soar the skies. I promise them every night that they can do whatever they want to do, be whoever they want to be. I owe them that, and I owe them the promise of this future, guiltlessly, without those maternal heartstrings holding them back.

I want them to be free.

But I also don’t want to be sentimental. I want to live in the moment and find ways to look back at this ice-cream scoop of a special, sweet time of living with under-fives that literally fills my life with laughter, and I want to do this in ways that don’t seem tinged by the sadness of a future which I should, truly, be looking forward to. And I am looking forward to it too - to writing books, to finishing what I started, to growing into another version of me, only one I don’t have to apologise for to anyone anymore, ever again.

So I’m beating time. I’m snatching it, by writing all of this down. The things they say, as they fling their damp arms around me at bedtime, things that catch me by surprise and still me for a second longer than they should or make me laugh when really, I’m supposed to be looking at them with my stern face. I’m saving the things I can’t put into words straight away.

But it’s not all about them either. It’s about me. It’s about me. I’m the one, finding my way.

And you see, this way, this way I win. I’m winning because I hold time in the tip of my fingers as I type, as I remember, as I hold onto the moments that might have only lasted a minute but felt like a lifetime. So long, sucker, I say to time as I hop my toes back as time drives past, racing right in front of my feet. So long.

Because I am the winner. I’m the one that gets to remember.


Will you join me?

Postcards Home is an online writing course designed not to feel like an online writing course but an inspiring nudge to help you want to write, to fall in love with writing, and to do it in a small, simple ways that aren’t overwhelming. Designed as a set of weekly essays, Postcards Home will gently, hopefully, remind you to look out for the details in your everyday, both your present and your past, and take note so that one day, you too might remember everything you want to through your very own written words.

Postcards Home begins on Monday, May 20th, 2019.