Picturebooks 9 – In the bag!

Andy McCormack
Monday, September 28, 2020

How story sacks can extend the learning and play potential provided by picturebooks. Andy McCormack explains

In 2007, Jo Weinberger, a researcher at the University of Sheffield, interviewed primary school family learning development officer Anne Stafford about a course she had devised for involving parents actively in young children’s literacy learning. With the parents on the course, Stafford drew up a grid as a tool for discussing the educational content of story sacks, along with resources and activities to accompany favourite picturebooks and nursery rhymes.

The grid initially included space for reflecting on children’s engagement with the story, but grew from recording learning in literacy to illustrating and evidencing learning across every area of the EYFS curriculum. The ‘communication skills’ that the story sacks nurtured did remain ‘absolutely paramount’ to the project, as ‘the richness of language, reading and books’ comes ‘into every area of learning’. However, the story sacks also provided parents with a means of coming to understand the Early Learning Goals not as something distant, unintelligible, or ‘weird and wonderful’, but interconnected, approachable and understandable.

Story sacks offer a means for extending and enriching the cross-curricular learning potential already embedded in every high-quality picturebook. They can reward parents, practitioners and young learners with an enormous amount of learning generated (and made observable) by a few well-chosen activities and resources, and opportunities for self-directed play.


There are commercially available story sacks ready-made for purchase, both from publishing houses and dedicated companies, and which often include beautiful props, picturebook editions and activity starter ideas. However, these can be costly, and can be restrictive in the sense of having too much of what Professor Tina Bruce might describe as ‘detail built in’.

As well as a means of structuring enriching, educative play, story sacks should also encourage what Professor Bruce would describe more expansively as ‘open-ended play’, allowing children to engage with perhaps less specific, branded resources in more creative, independent and exploratory ways.

Do check with your local lending library if you would like to see what is included in commercial story sacks, as lots of inspiration can be drawn from these. However, taking ownership of the resources you choose for your own story sacks, tailored to aspects of learning you wish to draw out from a particular story, or to the needs of the children in your setting, can be a more rewarding and empowering practice to add to your storytime repertoire and independent provision.

Some settings offer lending schemes for families to borrow story sacks to enrich literacy and learning at home – bolstering a commercial collection with some home-made resources could be a great way to extend this opportunity.


Exploring commercial story sacks and the National Literacy Trust’s tips for build-your-own resources is a helpful starting point for practitioners who like to plan in advance with specific learning goals in mind (see column, above left).

This kind of planning can be helpful too for practitioners still unsure as to the educative potential which can come from a commitment to really enriching storytime, with high-quality picturebooks providing a starting point in inspiring cross-curricular learning, rather than an end goal in literacy specifically.

In this sense, the structure ‘built-in’ to specially curated story sacks can also provide important frameworks for young readers new to engaging with books, and learning and play resources. Not all children have experience of books and toys at home, and can be lost when they arrive in a self-directed, free-flow setting in a way their more experienced peers are not.

Learning independently

Story sacks filled with props, related texts (such as non-fiction titles that explore concepts or topics in the story) and activity starters can guide practitioners in scaffolding play or questioning to help develop young learners’ independence in making cross-curricular connections for themselves.

Using models, dolls and props to retell a story independently develops both memory and creativity. Children can recreate the story as they remember hearing it, or choose to change, challenge or extend what they remember happening. This helps with developing sequencing and linearity, and both narrative and physical map-making offer important opportunities for conceptual and applied understanding of shape, space and measure respectively.

Including real objects and non-fiction books related to the story extend understanding of the real world and instigate conversation, encouraging children to make connections between stories and their relevance to our lives.

For this reason, story sacks can make an excellent resource for children with special educational needs, who require some extra support in recognising correspondence between the conceptual and concrete.

The opportunities for revisiting language already encountered at storytime, specifically connected to objects included in a story sack, also make their repeated use a helpful tool for children learning English as a second language.

The practicality of props helps concepts illustrated by picturebooks take on real shape and meaning for investigative young learners. Physically handling objects previously only illustrated or imagined can make the connections taking place in the minds of children more explicit for practitioners to observe, and indeed to understand themselves.

Making connections

Do not be surprised, however, when children make connections you had not anticipated in planning learning objectives connected to activity starters and ideas you might include inside your story sacks.

Activities that may arise organically from children interacting with five little fluffy ducks from a story sack related to the nursery rhyme could well include counting and 1:1 correspondence, but may very well, too, continue into an equally rewarding comparative investigation into the similarities and differences between little ducks and speckled frogs.

Matching animals to props related to their environments from a Dear Zoo story sack could meet the objective in an activity starter, but children arranging animals instead by size, shape or colour, or as potential pets to be named and sounded-out, could be just as fruitfully facilitated by the same resources and training in the framework of child-initiated sustained shared thinking that story sacks so encourage.


Despite puppets’ ubiquity in children’s entertainment, I was never particularly attracted to actually using puppets in my own classroom – until I came across a copy of Ingrid Crepeau and Ann Richards’ A Show of Hands: Using Puppets with Young Children.

American puppeteers and arts educators Crepeau and Richards illustrated for me how puppets can be used as valuable developmental teaching tools in the early years, of particular benefit to the encouragement of personal, social and emotional development.

You might think about using a special puppet to introduce storytimes and spark discussions afterwards, or puppets as props in retelling familiar stories. These puppets could ‘live’ in your book corner, functioning as what developmental psychologist Donald Winnicott described as ‘transitional objects’, to which children develop meaningful attachment, and with which they enjoy communicating imaginatively.

Including puppets in story sacks provides a means for children to empathically put themselves in the place of story characters, and to build confidence in communicating, performing and experimenting with stories.

A good collection of soft toys and dolls are as good as puppets (in fact, I preferred using soft toys which can be just as easily manipulated to express emotion as hand puppets, and don’t require a funny voice if they just ‘whisper’ in your ear) and wooden spoons can be painted or decorated as stylishly and imaginatively as any commercially available (and expensive) counterpart. Get creative!


  • Fill clear (sealed) plastic sandwich bags with natural objects to provide a sensory experience matching the environments in Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury’s We’re Going on a Bear Hunt.
  • Different-sized spoons, bowls and objects (not only beds and chairs!) can encourage matching and an appreciation for the shapes, spaces and measurements illustrated by Nosy Crow’s lovely edition of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
  • Soft animals and letter cards can help children use their phonic knowledge in casting spells, like the frog in Emily Gravett’s Spells.
  • Fruit counters encourage mathematical play and pattern-making in story sacks for Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, as much as encouraging talk about healthy eating and the life cycle.
  • Materials such as wood, plastic and metal can allow children to experiment with weight, and problem-solve by comparing with twigs, straw and bricks – like in Eugene Trivizas and Helen Oxenbury’s The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig.


The National Literacy Trust promotes story sacks as a way ‘to help make reading meaningful and fun’, and as important tools in ‘stimulating language development’ and ‘making reading memorable’. Its website includes a downloadable PDF with helpful instructions on creating your own, with general ideas for what to include, and some activity starters and extensions for specific stories. Visit: https://literacytrust.org.uk/early-years


Andy McCormack is an Early Years Teacher studying for his PhD at the Centre for Research in Children’s Literature, University of Cambridge

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