When I tell stories to children, whether in front of 300 children sitting on the floor of a multipurpose room, or in front of 3 children during a story time at my local library, it is crucial for me to get them participating from the very first moment. I directly engage with them by asking questions about anything.
“Who is 5 years old? Who used to 5 years old? Who will one day be 5 years?”
And then I start right into the story.
Often, I start with what I hope is an engaging sentence that somehow speaks to something they are experiencing. For instance, with younger listeners (ages 3-6), I love to start with a (mostly) true story of being scared of the dark.
I start by saying, “When I was 4 years old, I was scared of everything! I was scared of dogs, I was scared of cats, I was scared of ants, I was scared of my Aunt! I was scared of my little brothers! But the thing I was most scared of, in all the world, was the dark.” By starting in this way, hopefully the listeners are engaged in my story, but also simultaneously thinking of the things they were scared of when they were that young.
That is what is so powerful about storytelling. The listeners are engaged on multiple levels; the actual story I am telling, the pictures of that story they are seeing in their brain, and the memories of similar events they have experience. While these connections are happening, literacy and comprehension are aided, and actual pathways are being opened up and strengthened in the brain. Is it possible to implement this kind of storytelling in your daily life as a parent or teacher?
Part of it is just being aware of the rich trove of stories we all have, just from living our lives in these complicated times. I chatted with a grandmother and her 2 year-old grandson on my street last night. We were on the hill, looking at the traffic below us, and a bus stopped at the light. The grandson loves buses, and he said, “Gramma! Bus!” And just then, a car bumped into the back of the bus. He said, “Bump, Gramma!” The bus driver got out, they talked, and then they drove away.
The grandmother said, “Honey, once upon a time, a bus waited at the light. A car drove up behind it, and what happened?” The boy smiled, and nearly squealed with delight, “Bump!” Then she repeated what he said in a full sentence, “That’s right, love, the car bumped into the back of the bus!” The boy giggled and said, “Bumped to the bus!” Then, she repeated the whole sequence, and each time, he giggled as he added more and more words, his brain trying to form full sentences and learn the vocabulary.
To them, it was a game. To me, it looked like fun, and it looked like learning. As I left them, I was reminded, stories are everywhere, and wondered what other stories I could find. Turns out, I could find a lot, and I hope you do, too.
Antonio Sacre, born in Boston to a Cuban father and Irish-American mother, is an internationally touring writer, storyteller, and solo performance artist based in Los Angeles. Since 1994, he has taught drama, storytelling, and writing to teachers and students nationwide, and worked as artist in residence with youth in four inner city high schools of New York, Chicago, and South Central Los Angeles. He is a sought-after keynote speaker for diversity trainings across the country.
Learn more about him on his website.