Part 1 - Learning a stock of easy-to-tell stories
An important bond that I have established with our children, especially the older two, is my practice of telling them stories. I don't mean reading them stories out of a book, although we also do that -- I mean telling them stories out of my head, either recounting well-known tales or making up something new from scratch as I go along.
One nice thing about telling stories as opposed to reading them is that we can do it anywhere, even though we have not planned ahead to bring a book along with us. I often tell the children stories at bedtime, when we have plenty of books available, but I also tell them stories during car trips, or while waiting to see the doctor, or while we are hiking in the woods, or when one of them is sad and needs some cheering up. Because the stories come directly from my memory or imagination, they are available at any time.
If you are not in the habit of telling stories to your children, you might like to try it sometime. No special training or expertise are necessary. I certainly don't consider myself to be an expert on storytelling, but I've had several years experience at it with my own kids, so in this article and others to follow I will share some of my own suggestions on how to make it enjoyable for you and for your children.
First, I want to emphasize that it is not in any way necessary that you be able to make up your own stories as you go, or that you memorize complete texts of plot, description, and dialogue. A good starting point is to learn a few simple, easy-to-tell stories.
Learning a Few Simple Stories
Before you can tell the stories you must first learn the basics of the stories that you want to tell. As long as you remember the essential elements of the story, it won't matter whether you tell it exactly the same way every time. Here are a few types of stories that you may want to consider: Aesop's Fables; Fairytales; Traditional Children's Stories; Myths, Legends and Tall Tales; and Bible Stories (each of these story types is discussed in more detail below). My Storytelling Resources page has books that you can order online and free internet resources that you can use to find and learn these stories.
Aesop's Fables - These short tales each include a moral lesson, and have simple plots that are very easy to remember. The characters are often animals, such as the sly fox, the hungry wolf, the hard-working ants, and the silly frogs. Many characters or phrases from these stories have become part of our language, used as shorthand expressions of particular ideas or situations: the boy who cried wolf, the dog in the manger, sour grapes, etc. Here is my version of "The Fox and the Grapes".
Fairytales - By fairytales, I mean not only stories of fairies, witches, and princes-turned-frogs, but in general all of the stories of magic and wonder that we often learn as children. Favorite stories include Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin, The Pied Piper, and many more. I would also include the stories written by Hans Christian Anderson, such as The Ugly Duckling, The Snow Queen, and The Little Mermaid.
Traditional Stories for Children - This category includes simple stories such as The Little Red Hen, Chicken Little, The Three Little Pigs, and The Little Engine That Could.
Myths, Legends, and Tall Tales - Some of the first stories that I told my kids were from classical mythology, the stories that the ancient Greeks and Romans told about their gods and goddesses, monsters and heroes. Not all of these stories are suitable for children; many contain excessive violence and sexual situations. Persons holding particular religious beliefs may also want to caution their children that these are only made-up stories, and that the "gods" in them are not real. My personal choice is to refer to the powerful beings of classical mythology as "Olympians" rather than as "gods". Some stories that I have chosen for my kids include the Twelve Labors of Hercules, the Travels of Odysseus, the story of King Midas, and the story of Perseus and Medusa. Here is my version of "King Midas and the Golden Touch".
There are many other bodies of legends and tales to draw on in addition to the stories of classical myth. Norse, Celtic, American Indian, and African cultures have all produced many timeless tales, and many of these have been retold in formats suitable for children. I also like to tell my children stories from 19th century North America, the tall tales of cowboy Pecos Bill and lumberjack Paul Bunyan.
Stories from the Bible - My children have often enjoyed having stories read to them from The Beginner's Bible, which has simplified versions of many of the events from the Old Testament and from the life of Jesus. When I have been at a loss for a story to tell them I have often fallen back on these, even when we did not have the book available. Some favorites are the stories of Noah, Moses, Samson, and David; and from the life of Christ, the retellings of many of His parables. Persons who believe that the Bible is the Word of God will want to make sure that their children understand that these stories are different from many other stories that may be told, because these stories are true.
Telling the Stories
As I stated above, it is not important for you to memorize every bit of action and dialogue before you can tell one of these stories to your children. The key is learning the essential bits well enough that you can fill in the details on the fly.
Let's take as an example the story of The Pied Piper. The important parts are that the city was overrun by a plague of rats; the Piper came to town and offered to get rid of the rats in return for a huge fee in gold; the city council promised to pay the fee; the Piper went through town playing his pipe and led the rats down to the sea to drown; the city refused to pay the Piper; and the Piper then went through town playing his pipe to lead all of the children away. If you want to add a happy ending, you can have the city council realize their error, pay the Piper, and get the children back again. If you just told the story to your kids as I've summarized it here, it would be an awfully short story.
To flesh out the story and make it interesting for the children, you add details, descriptions, and dialogue. In telling the story of The Pied Piper, you might want to tell them how big and ugly and dirty the rats were, and how they came and stole food right off of people's tables, and how they had ganged up on all of the cats and chased them out of town. You might describe the Piper's colorful costume of red and green and gold, and tell them about the sweet music of his magical pipe. It could help them understand the story better if you explain that the pipe is a musical instrument, similar to the recorders or flutaphones that they may play in music class at school. You will certainly want to describe the awesome grey-black river of rats flowing down the streets following the Piper as he leads the way to the waterfront. All of these things are details that can be told differently each time you tell the story, as long as you remember the basic elements of the plot.
I hope that this article helps you venture into the joyous pastime of telling stories to your children. In the next issue of Circle Time e-zine, I'll write about adding some novelty to your stories with variations and improvisations.
This article Copyright © 1998 by Chuck Bennett (email@example.com)
Note: See my Storytelling Resources page for a listing of books that I recommend for learning the various stories I've listed above, and for links to free resources on the web with public-domain texts of many of these stories.
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