Once upon a time at Newlands Spring Primary School in Chelmsford, Essex, there was a teacher who found herself on a quest to enrich the play and learning of her children through storytelling. Like Alice following the rabbit into Wonderland, the unexpected finds and plot twists created the ultimate learning journey…
It was at the national Froebel conference last year that I first heard of ‘story grammar’. Simply put, story grammar refers to the integral elements of a story, such as character, setting and plot, as well as a reading comprehension strategy based on ‘wh’ questions, such as:
- Who is the main character?
- When and where did the story take place?
- What did the main character do?
- How did the story end?
While designed as a comprehension strategy, it can also be used for creating stories with children. I was keen to try it as I felt it may have potential benefits over some other approaches.
‘Helicopter stories’, which has its origins in the work of Vivian Gussin Paley, enables children to share and act out their stories with their teacher and peers. However, for some children this can be challenging; forming a link from known stories to creating your own can be a big jump.
In Pie Corbett’s Talk for Writing approach, children learn a narrative off by heart and over time edit the story, so eventually it becomes their own creation. However, with the story structure similar to the original, it means children cannot make up a narrative from scratch.
Modelling is a common teaching practice, yet when it comes to storytelling, there is the tendency among practitioners to let the children fly solo. For some children, that is like jumping from the metaphorical helicopter without a parachute. Perhaps creating stories with children using the story grammar approach would allow them to have ownership of a story, while learning story grammar and how to ‘play with ideas and words’?
In my early years classroom, we created a storybook from an A2 sketchbook, and once a day the whole class would come together for storytime. Using the ‘story grammar’ concept, the children would tell me when, where, who and what they wanted in their story and whether they wanted a happy or sad ending.
I would then scribe the children’s ideas down in the story book for all to see and start guiding them through the process of creating a story from scratch. The children were able to start making connections between the ideas and how to create something from, essentially, nothing.
A key aspect of this strategy is that all ideas are accepted in the story, even if the links between them look challenging – when in doubt, use a magic portal! The initial ideas can be vague and almost unrelated, yet there is something magical in a child’s excitement as they hear their idea being incorporated into a story which is being created right in front of them (see box).
Your first attempt at creating stories in this way might be a bit bumpy and it may take a few tries to develop your ‘author’s voice’, but luckily children are very forgiving, and it is a class story book after all – you are all in it together!
The storytelling sessions benefited the children in a variety of ways:
- They developed skills including turn-taking, respecting each other’s ideas and concentration.
- Their personal storytelling skills improved during literacy activities and in their play.
- Their play became more elaborate – children were choosing to create their own story maps and return to the class book to retell the story to their friends or by themselves.
- They developed favourite story themes or would ask to retell certain stories. The wording would never be the same, but that was accepted; their key ideas were there, and the links were similar. The class was playing with words.
- Their vocabulary expanded, and children started asking for words they liked the sound of to be included in their stories, such as ‘armadillo’! They would then want to know what an armadillo was and where it lived. Storytelling gave them ‘permission’ to play with and explore words and ideas.
The play and literacy skills that children acquired may come as no surprise, but what came as a definite plot twist was the emotional development that stemmed from class storytelling. Self-regulation, respect and empathy all came into play, with the children processing the emotions that the story had created.
A key example of this emotional development was when the children chose, for the first time, to have a ‘sad ending’ to their story. The story incorporated the key features they had asked for: the class and the teacher had gone through a portal to dinosaur land where, after various adventures, everyone, except the teacher, managed to get back through the portal in time.
After a long silence, a discussion revealed the children’s understanding of ‘impact’ and ‘consequences’. They had asked for a sad ending without comprehending what that meant. But, in storytelling, imagination is the only limit, so the emotions and consequences could be processed freely, without the restraints of reality.
Over the next eight days, the children chose to spend time writing, retelling, enacting, drawing and recreating the story, changing the ending so the teacher either got through the portal in time or was rescued. Storytelling had created an emotionally ‘risky play’ space where they could be challenged and they developed resilience.
This linked strongly with Vivian Paley’s A Child’s Work, which showed that for children, a story is much more adaptable than a game or even play. The rules are much more ambiguous in storytelling.
It seems that by strengthening children’s imagination through storytelling and enabling them to explore the world, their ‘Wonderland’, anything is possible.
The sneezing unicorn
Around the corner is a land filled with wonders, with mountains as high as dreams, rivers as fresh as lemonade and perfect climbing trees. It was this land that Amy and Peter’s family went to visit. It was the trip the children had been dying for ever since their father told them about the magical place he used to visit when he was a boy.
While their mother and father set up camp, the two children ran off towards the woods, ignoring their parents’ instructions about not getting into too much trouble! Just as they rushed around towards the trees, they heard a loud ‘pop’ that made Amy lose her footing and land on her bottom. As Peter was trying to help her up, her eyes became as big as saucers. There in front of her was the most beautiful unicorn she had ever seen. In fact, it was the first unicorn she had ever seen!
With a beautiful shining, shimmering silver coat and a glorious mane and tail of purple, the unicorn was as surprised to see the children as they were to see her. Just then there was another pop.
Somersaulting forward on top of the unicorn landed a rather disheveled-looking princess. ‘I really must get you to a vet!’ she signed. Just then the unicorn gave a huge sneeze and a bolt of magic shot out at the end of its horn. It took off the top of the mountain and a lava dragon weaved its way down the mountain, causing destruction in its path. The dragon was heading towards the camp and their parents. The children begged the princess to help. Then ‘aaahhh ccchhhhooo!’ The princess and unicorn disappeared and the dragon slowly turned into stone, creating a smooth path to the top of the mountain.
Later that day, when their parents suggested a walk up the path, the children gave a very firm, ‘No!’ They had had enough adventures for one day. (Abridged)
- A Child’s Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play by Vivian Gussin Paley
- Princess, Dragons and Helicopter Stories by Trisha Lee
- Talk for Writing in the Early Years: How to teach story and rhyme, involving families 2-5 years by Pie Corbett and Julia Strong
- Bringing the Froebel Approach to your Early Years Practice by Helen Tovey
- The Froebel Trust, www.froebel.org.uk