Mary Medlicott is a professional storyteller, storytelling trainer and storytelling workshop leader with over 30 years' experience. In this blog for the Alliance, she explains the benefits of storytelling with young children, and how both practitioners and parents can help children get the most out of storytime whilst having fun and creating a stronger bond between adult and child.
Parents are busy. Parents get tired. And according to a recent survey, these are the major reasons that ever fewer parents are reading to their children at night. I think another reason could be added, namely the powerful attraction of screens. Anyone who’s ever tried separating a child from the cartoon or game on their device will instantly know what I mean. It’s hard!
Yet reading to children has enormous value for both child and parent. Stories in books help create new worlds inside young children’s brains. They expand children’s imaginations, teach them about people and places and, along the way, bring new words to their tongues. Enabling this to occur is a massive gift for any parent to give. Besides, the warmth and pleasure of the process can only help deepen the bond between parent and child.
So finding regular time to read to children is abundantly worthwhile for parents and Early Years workers. Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, agrees. Shortly before this year’s World Book Day, she described in the Sunday Express how much joy it gave her as a child that her father had read stories with her. She explained why the tradition is vital: "Reading to our children and our grandchildren is something we can all try to do every day of the year. Not only does it give us pleasure but it leads them on a voyage of discovery and enrichment that only books can bring."
But Under-Fives aren’t always easy, especially not in a group. Until you learn how to capture and keep their attention, they can prove a difficult, demanding audience. I was lucky. I learned how to do it back in the early 1980s on a scheme then being run in Lambeth where I live. The scheme had been created by an enterprising librarian, Janet Hill, who realised that children on local estates did not have books. Nor did they know any traditional stories. What she initiated involved part-time employees such as myself making weekly visits to Under-Fives centres and playgroups to read picture-books to the children. Also in holiday times, we’d tell stories to children of all ages at holiday play-schemes.
Bringing books alive
The scheme became my gateway into becoming a professional storyteller. The first thing it taught me was that books don’t talk. You as the adult have to bring them alive. The emotions of whatever you’re reading must be conveyed through voice and facial expressions accompanied by actions which the children can join in with. Plus, where necessary, quick explanations of what’s going on can be helpful. I also learned the value of making up little riffs of words and actions to introduce a story or episodes within it. Besides, just as with a child at home, I learned that making space for response is vital. But equally important is to control the response, listening closely while it’s happening, then getting on with the story before chaos results.
"Learning how to bring books alive showed me that, alongside what author and illustrator have given, a lot must also come from you."
Learning how to bring books alive showed me that, alongside what author and illustrator have given, a lot must also come from you. This in turn became my initiation into many of the skills that oral storytelling involves, including remembering stories sufficiently well to tell them without a book. For it really is true that some stories you read – Goldilocks and the Three Bears, for example - become so familiar to you that, honestly, you could just as well put the book aside and tell them instead.
Learning to tell
But why would you ever want to do that? Training Early Years workers and parents has taught me that the very idea gives many the proverbial willies. My new book, Storytelling and Story-reading in Early Years, outlines how you can prepare yourself for it and what you might gain. Try it and see! The book explains that, to tell a story, ‘you have to become able to tell it in your own words. You have to feel it is coming from you.’ So go through it in your own mind, see its scenes with your internal eye, imagine what characters might be saying, feel their emotions. The results can be spectacular. They can bring you personally a welcome new sense of the power of your own imagination, something the pace and nature of modern life can all too easily squash. With the children, there’s much more attention. Also again and again, adults have reported back to me that doing a story ‘out of your mouth’ gives children fresh respect for them as the storyteller. No book in sight? This must mean you know things. Listening then brings a sense of wonder as the story becomes present in the room.
Stories are wonderful things, pathways into hitherto untravelled worlds. They’ve existed since human civilization began. Let us find every possible way to realise their continuing potential for today and the future.
Find out more about Mary, about her work, and about her new book Storytelling and Story-Reading in Early Years, on her website here.
You can also read more of Mary's blogs over at her weekly blog here