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!

Eating al fresco

An essay on eating outside, eating in the garden and the joys of al fresco dining with pretty table settings, on my blog, Our Story Time ourstorytime.co.uk

“Shall we eat in the garden tonight?” was a line I lived for when I was little because it meant dinner would be fun food. Dinner in the garden meant potato salad and pizza and corn-on-the-cob and ice cream and no need to argue with my siblings over whose turn it was to lay the table in the first place, or wipe down the place mats afterwards. Dinner in the garden somehow made my parents a little more tranquil, a little less likely to tell us off or remind us to finish what was on our plates; it somehow made us kids a little less argumentative. It meant calling family friends over last minute, with no need to dress up in shalwar kameez (something I used to have to ordinarily do when my parents’ friends would visit).

Now that I am grown, with a small garden of my own which is budding with African daisies and poppies and honeysuckle, I love eating outside on summer nights.

Every year, we forget to buy enough garden chairs for all of us. Instead I unroll a large mat that’s big enough for all of us, and we sit on the grass or the deck. Here we eat thrown-together-food, sturdy simple food. The sort of fun, no-cook food I remember dinner in the garden always promised when I was a child. For us now this means means sliced up veggies and pots of humous and minty tzatziki; triangles of fried crispy tortillas; bowls of my favourite red baby plum tomatoes, chubby as a toddler’s thumb. Scoops of avocado; hunks of cheese and berries and mangoes I still don’t know how to slice despite all those summers in Lahore.

Lest this sound too idyllic, sometimes dinner in the garden is pizza ordered in. No one minds at all.

Sometimes, I’ll admit - dinner in the garden is more stressful than it needs to be or is supposed to be. Wasps, bees, flies; all the flying things my motley crew of children are frightened of. Sometimes the allure of garden toys is just so sparkling, it means no dinner is eaten at all. Some nights all they have is ice cream. Sometimes it all ends in tears because some small wise crack switched the hose pipe on to jet spray his siblings to boot.

Some nights, I carry them back inside over my shoulder, one by one, and do dinner all over again in the hope they might eat something, anything, before they go to bed.

It’s not exactly a challenge for me, to lighten up like this, but it’s not my normal way of doing things either. At the risk of sounding too much like some type A mother (the tendency is there, I’ll admit) I’m the kind of parent that is reassured by order. Ordinarily, for most of the year, dinner is always inside at the dining table and it marks an unsaid yet very clear shift in our daily routine. It means homework finished, bags packed for morning. It means toys tidied up; bath time round the corner and bed too soon after that. The last laundry load of the day. Counters, wiped. Everything, done. The satisfaction of it done well, too.

But summer dinners, schools-out dinners, dinner-in-the-garden dinners, throw all that order and timeliness to the wind. Instead, my floors are covered with the shadows of grubby feet, running outside and inside and outside again. My home is messier-than-normal. Fingerprints are smeared on back doors, ghosts of warm days. Baths become sloppy, skipped for soapy chases through the sprinkler instead. Bedtime is never quite so late, they simply remain unable to stay awake, but it is not quite with one eye on the clock.

I embrace this, even though it is so unlike the mother I am from September to somewhere mid-May, for how could I not? It does me good to let things go a little; to chill, so to speak. It does me good to slip into summer rather than try and time it or tick it off a to-do list. It does me good to remember. It does me good to recall what it was like to be little, to feel that ice cube cold delight when one of my parents would say: “Shall we eat in the garden tonight?”

Of course, you don’t need a garden for this sort of happy feeling. When I lived alone, a balcony was all I had and I’d sit there, a bowl of something on my knee. For a while, before we had a garden, I’d load the buggy up with pots of this and that from the fridge and we’d head out back for the dinner in the park. Any space where you can feel the sun on your face or the grass under your feet will do.

I guess all I’m saying is: it makes me happy, this time of year, when the honeysuckle tangles over the fence, when the day rolls into night, when we eat outside and we lose track of time and we realise that work and deadlines and all of that stuff doesn’t really matter anyway, never really did, but that all of this - this time - is the only thing that does.

Five favourite recipes for eating in the garden and dining al fresco

A summerhouse in Denmark, and other stories of a Scandinavian family holiday

A family holiday to Denmark and staying in a summerhouse on the Danish coast with children. More on my blog, ourstorytime.co.uk

It was the best bakery in town, or so we were told. We sought it out on our phones on purpose. We stepped in, sandy off the beach. The children gathered around the counter barefoot. It was the third day of our holiday on the Danish coast.

This one, one of them said, pointing at a round yellow cake. Moon cake! exclaimed the one who can read. It’s called moon cake! But it’s not made of cheese! And they laughed and I did too because at the age three, that was a pretty good joke to have made.

The lady serving cut big slices up and placed them in a box tied with ribbon, a fancy thing that reminded me of the boxes of cream cakes my aunt used to routinely order in for late afternoon teas taken in the shade of her house in Lahore. I balanced the box on my lap all the way home, despite the little pleas: please can we open it now? Please open it now!

The boys ate moon cake in the garden of the summer house we quickly learned to call home for just a week or so. The baby napped in the car, parked under a tree on the lawn.

I guess I must have fallen asleep too because the next thing I knew, the baby was up and the boys, worn out from running laps in the wrap-around garden, were asking for pizza.

It was on the way to the grocery store that it all began. One kid throwing up, followed by the other. My husband and I looked at each other in horror.

That’s all, really, that you need to know.

It lasted two days. Two days out of a seven day holiday. I don’t know if it really was the moon cake or something else entirely, but I still cursed it with grown-up words and shoved the box angrily in the bin.

Two days of sickness was not great. But it was manageable.

And so we managed. We came through the other side. We vowed to eat home cooked meals made from scratch only for the rest of our stay. They were wiped out. We were too. So we kept the rest of the holiday low-key.

A family holiday in Denmark and staying in a summerhouse on the Danish coast with young children. More on my blog ourstorytime.co.uk

We caught the light. We took walks up and down the quiet country lanes that laced through the little village we happened to be staying in - me, nosily sneaking peeks at the beautiful houses we passed. We spent an afternoon in the gardens of Munkeruphus, an architect’s home-turned-museum, just around the corner. The day we visited, a dinner was taking place right there, beneath the great old trees in the gardens. They’d decorated the table with clementines, so pretty it looked like still life. We wound down narrow walkways edged with wildflowers sloping to the beach where our not-quite 100% kids built towers with stones and dipped their toes in the water, looking out at a lighthouse.

Another day we hesitatingly drove up to a coastal town called Gilleleje, and judged the boys’ complexions well enough to break that home-cooked vow, ordering brunch plates of fresh bread and cheese and blueberry jam. They survived; we ate there everyday for the remainder of our stay.

We played out on sandy beaches, looked across the water for Sweden, walked through woods, came close to Hamlet’s castle but gave up when little legs declared themselves tired, and that too felt okay because it wasn’t as though we had a list to tick.

In between, we stayed home, which wasn’t our home at all, and the kids ran wild shivering underneath an outside shower (not the only shower, I might add).

After the boys were in bed, we stayed up, searching for “house with wrap-around garden north London” on our phones. Imagine if we lived here, we said to each other.

Honestly, sickness or no sickness; it was one of the loveliest places I have ever been. Even if we didn’t venture far.

We’re heading back this summer, to the exact same summerhouse, tentatively adding more to our low-key plans.

We’ll catch the light for a little while.

Family holiday to Denmark staying on the Danish coast with young children. More on my blog, Our Story Time ourstorytime.co.uk

Where we stayed

This beach house on the Danish coast, in the tiny village of Munkerup in North Sealand. It’s about an hour’s drive from Copenhagen.

Places to visit on the danish coast

Munkeruphus is a beautiful sort-of museum housed in an architect’s home. Built like an American Colonial, it is airy, sprawling and perfectly positioned with beautiful views over the sea. You can wander through the rooms, be inspired by simple, understated but homely interiors and let your kids draw at a mini-architect’s table. When we visited, the gardens were full of hidden treasures for the children to discover as part of an exhibit. From the back, there’s also a breathtaking descent to a very secluded, very pretty little beach.

Gilleleje is the closest town and it’s a lively little harbour spot. We spent lots of afternoons here. The sandy beaches are untouched, surrounded by pretty little cabins and summerhouses. There’s also bike hire, lots of cute little independent shops and plenty of places for ice cream. Cafe Flora was our favourite hideout. From a practical point of view, Gilleleje also has a number of grocery stores you need for a self-catering stay.

Hornbaek and Dronningmølle are sometimes referred to as Denmark’s St Tropez but I found them both to be perfectly lovely, child-friendly sea-side resorts.

A little more of a drive up the coast, and you arrive in Helsingør, another harbour town to explore and home to Kronborg Castle, otherwise known as Hamlet’s castle. Our kids enjoyed hanging out around the Maritime Museum (there’s also some old ships for them to marvel out in the harbour) and watching the big ferries set sail.

From Helsingør, you can also catch the ferry over to Sweden. This is a handy itinerary for a daytrip from Helsingør to Helsingborg.

As you drive along the coast, there’s no end of woodlands with walkways down to the sea; do pull over and explore.

Psst….

Postcards Home, my online summer writing course on writing your first-person memories, is starting soon. 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.

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