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!