Storytelling and Pre-Schoolers: Getting and holding the nursery child's attention?
A Teaching Outline by Wendy Welch
These notes are the outline of a class taught in Scotland by Wendy Welch, to teach storytelling techniques to teachers of preschool children. They are presented in a step - by - step order. You are welcome to use any exercises or ideas within them. Please do credit the appropriate sources.
WE START WITH THE STORY
1. Identify the kids' interest - if you know them well, great; if not, think about that age group
- Stories where kids their age are heroes
- Stories about things kids like to do: getting dirty, playing with an adult around, trying something new for the first time, etc. [NOT things adults think kids like: going to the circus, etc. which can go flat if you can't think
like a kid]
2. Where do you find good stories?
- Stories from your head (remembered, made up)
- Picture books (especially if trying to excite reading)
- Your public or school library (Dewey System 398.2 - Be sure to check the Juvenile section) has many collections of Folktales often compiled in easy format books, or adaptable to your needs.
- Family stories (but don't discover yourself on other people's time!)
3. Key elements to a successful storytime
- Know and like your story
- Know and like your audience
- Make sure they match each other
- Be flexible
THEN WE WORK ON THE TELLER
4. How do you learn a story to tell?
- Learn the bare bones plot (3 pigs left home and each built a house: one of sticks, one of straw, one of bricks. A wolf came and blew down the straw and stick houses. He tried to get into the brick house but got boiled when he went down the chimney into a pot of water. The End; a fox made a crow drop some cheese by flattering her into opening her mouth to sing. The End. Etc.)
- Tell it to yourself while driving (mind the traffic wardens!)
- Tape it if you want
- Use a mirror if you want
- Remember, you're not trying out for the London Theatre; relax and have fun
REMEMBER: ENVIRONMENT IS IMPORTANT!
5. Even if you know the story, you can't keep infants' attention in hyper
- Room temp, noise level, physical environment
TIP: In a hot room, don't do action stories/ but do a warm-up poem in cold room
- Special situations:
- emotional atmosphere (have there been recent deaths, etc.)
TIP: Let kids talk; let them choose elements of the story and you "improv" them in (the king's gifts, e.g. or what tasks the girl had to do, etc.) This improvisation is not nearly as hard as it sounds, particularly if you and the kids already know each other
- The Easter Bunny is due in ten minutes
TIP: Don't go on before the Easter Bunny. Period!
- The kids are rowdy, restless, just ate sugar
TIP: If kids arrive early for a program, encourage them to walk about rather than sit. If it is possible to control timing, tell before they eat. Pay attention to what kids want/expect; don't attempt the impossible. Start with a calming poem. Set up expectations. "If you can hear me" games.
If You Can Hear Me is a technique for regaining control of a noisy room. The adult stands at the front and says very quietly "If you can hear me I want you to pat your head." She pats, and as one or two kids catch on and begin patting, the noise dies down. As it does, the adult increases her voice level until everyone can hear the instructions and do the action.)
MAKING STORIES EXCITING AND FUN
6. Add the tools of the teller:
- Enthusiasm/Spirit (Cooperation with the audience!)
A good voice exercise is to write some sentences on a blackboard, and have each person say them in different situations. For instance, say "I want a cup of coffee" as though you were tired, happy, angry, disgusted, humiliated, etc. Then change this to an entire situation: you are in your boss's office and he has just fired you. Let them choose the emotion and the voice.
A good body exercise is one I learned from Heather Forest. Have two people hold up a sheet, and two more stand behind it, the sheet covering their torsos and upper legs. Whisper an emotion into their ears, and then say "go." Have the students point out what made them know which emotions they were imitating. This is called cultural knowledge. We know when people are angry, sad, excited, etc. We don't always know why we know, but we do know. So do kids
- in fact, they are sometimes quicker to pick this up because they need
it for living by adult rules. So be careful with your face and body language; the kids are reading it.
There are many old theatre games that work well here. One I like is the Magic Box - an imaginary box that goes around the circle, each person pulling out and using an object until everyone has guessed what it is. This involves the next tool: cooperation. Someone will choose something complex or esoteric, and no one will be able to guess. Then we have to cooperate with the audience, help them, give them clues. It is our responsibility, not theirs, to provide the communication needed to make the link to our thoughts.
- A tape recorder will let you hear what your voice is doing
- A mirror will let you observe your face and body
- Mulling the story over will bring out imaginative sparks
- Taking it all too seriously will kill your enthusiasm and spirit
8. Remember: you're not just telling stories; you're teaching them to be an
- Intersperse with rhymes, fingerplays, prop stories
- Keep stories short
9. Ways to participate
Kids love to move, to see things develop in front of them (balloons, origami, etc.) And they love to get to yell, talk, laugh, make themselves a part of the story.
- Breathing - take a great big breath just before you want them to join in
- "and then the giant said. . ." done slowly
- hand gestures
- conduct them with a sweeping motion. Kids are quick.
- practice beforehand if very tricky, but incorporating the "now I want you to do this" won't spoil the surprise, particularly if you use one of the above techniques rather than breaking the story to give instructions. Kids will begin repeating when repetition becomes obvious, if you let them know you want it.
- tricky with rowdy group
- magic velcro use
Magic velcro is a Wendy invention. I use it with a poem about running puppies. This is a basic scenario:
"Okay, now everybody is standing up, right? Here we go. Pick your right leg up with your hands. Now stick it to the floor with the magic (or imaginary) velcro. Push it down hard. Wiggle it around. Is it stuck? Oops, that one's not stuck; better try again. Everybody stuck? Good, now the left leg. Okay, can you move your feet off the floor? Try." All sorts of contortions as you show them your feet are stuck. "Okay, now let's run with our feet stuck to the floor!" If you do it, they will do it.
- building a fire techniques.This is an old story technique, involving creating a rainstorm or building a
fire. It is available in many books.
Individual parts (getting the kids to take parts and act out a story)
- tricky but possible with pre-schoolers, easier with older kids. I recommend if you are going to do this that you choose a very repetitive story, like The Three Bears. Choosing parts doesn't always work well with strangers entering a classroom. Teachers who are familiar to the kids have better results.
10. Limit the number of participation stories per program, but be ready to be
(If you're going to use it, use it sparingly!)
Ways to participate
- go over the stories individual class members have been working on and look for places in individual stories where these could be inserted. Not every story has them, not every class participant wants them. But it is a good exercise to identify them.
Finding stories appropriate to age groups and special circumstances
11. Librarians are our friends but YOU are your greatest resource
- Look at books with discernment - some books are for adults to buy kids, some books are for kids to enjoy. Know the difference. Give people time to look through the stack of books on the tables (brought from home).
- Sudden death exercise (Wendy's own invention again): each student is given a picture book chosen for her or him, no choice in the matter. They get five minutes to read the book (which is VERY simple - I keep a supply on hand.) Then take the book away - no matter how they plead or cry, take the book. They get five to ten minutes, then they tell the story. This is good for the end of the class, when they have the techniques but are still unconfident about not reading. It really works well.
12. Last things before leaving the class
- Brainstorm ways the stories students choose to work on could be made into special circumstance stories (to combat teasing, to cope with family situations, etc.) Work together as a class if it is small enough, in groups if it is not.
- Do a balloon story together
- this is a type of telling I do where people are given balloon hats and props and asked to play parts in well
- known fairy tales. It won't be appropriate for most users of these notes.
Wendy Welch is the founder of the Storytelling Section of the American Folklore Society. She earned her Ph.D. in Folklore from Memorial University of Newfoundland and writes articles of scholarly and practical interest on storytelling matters, including Appalachian Life in the U.S.A.. She organises a few festivals in Scotland and hosts a monthly radio programme on storytelling. Wendy has told stories from Ireland to Indiana, and runs the Artists' Exchange Programme of Scotland. Her email address is email@example.com and her website Folklore offers both Cassettes and Tour information.