The Importance of Storytelling!

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The Importance of Storytelling

Tell me a story, Grandma,” says five-year-old Kieran, as he pulls up his chair in front of me. It’s summer, and we’re taking advantage of relaxed COVID restrictions to camp together.

“What kind of story?” I ask.

“A new one!” says Kieran.

I think for a moment, then launch into an improvised tale about a boy who wants to be a squirrel.

All three of my young grandchildren love stories and I love telling them, so it’s a match made in heaven. As it turns out, the role of grandparents as storytellers is as old as language—and continues to be important even in these media-saturated times.

A good story isn’t just entertaining; it’s a shared experience between teller and listener, an opportunity to give each other undivided attention. The stories themselves may pass on values or information, or offer glimpses into our collective cultural heritage. Storytelling is certainly more challenging when distance or COVID restrictions prevent us from being together in person, but with a little creativity, we can still keep this tradition alive.

Family History

Grandparents are often the unofficial historians of their families—a most important role. In a 2001 study by Drs. Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush, children who knew the most about their family histories scored the highest on tests for self-esteem, resilience, and social and academic competence. The researchers concluded that the family stories they’d heard had given these children a sense of security and rootedness, and taught them that they belonged to something bigger than themselves. They’d learned that setbacks and obstacles were part of life, but that they could be overcome.

Since we carry them around in our memories already, family stories are often the easiest to tell. Young kids love to hear about the humorous misadventures of their parents and grandparents when they were young, while older kids may be interested in the more serious trials and triumphs we’ve experienced, as well as those of more distant ancestors.

Fictional Stories

There’s a wealth of fictional stories worth sharing as well, stretching from the present back to mythic times. As I write this the library can only be accessed remotely, but the library’s online catalogue is still a great place to search for and request wonderful materials, from the world’s great myths, to collections of folk and fairy tales, to contemporary picture books that can be either read-aloud or learned and shared orally. Alternatively, visit fairytalez.com to browse a collection of more than 4,000 stories from around the world.

Made Up Stories

Preparing your own original stories in advance or making them up on the spot can be a wonderful creative exercise—and especially fun if you involve your grandchild in the story-making along the way. Depending on their age and enthusiasm, they can contribute a name, setting, character or even significant plot development. Creating an original story or “customizing” an existing one gives you the opportunity to make story time especially meaningful to your grandchild.

Tips for Telling

The stories we tell and how we tell them will be determined in large part by the age of our grandkids. Young children have short attention spans and will be most entertained by very short stories and rhymes. Interactive finger plays, felt boards, or puppets can help keep them focused – and are especially helpful if you’re sharing stories remotely via Zoom.

Older preschoolers and primary students will enjoy longer stories, especially when they include humour and/or suspense. To keep kids of any age engaged, allow your own inner child to surface by being playful as you tell, using different voices for different characters, varying your volume, and using pauses for dramatic effect. If you’re able to tell in person, gestures can add impact.

Storytelling becomes a more informal process as our grandkids get older, often evolving into personal or family stories recounted on hikes, long car rides, or while engaged in a shared activity. Even teens aren’t too old for stories; in fact if anything they need them even more. As they navigate the turbulent adolescent years, our grandkids need to be reassured that they aren’t alone, that other family members have taken risks, made mistakes, and suffered setbacks. Some family stories will encourage and inspire, while others may serve as cautionary tales. All are important.

Learning a Story

Preparing an engaging opening or first line can be a good way to draw young listeners in, but the rest should flow naturally when we’re telling in-person or on Zoom, allowing us to be present and spontaneous in the shared moment. But even if we don’t memorize every word, keeping track of a story’s characters and plot developments can be challenging.

Storyboarding or story mapping can be an effective way to commit all the necessary elements to memory. Both involve recording the story in visual form, either sketching individual scenes in sequence on a paper divided into boxes, or by drawing a rough map of the story which includes all the key elements. Stick figures are fine in either case. This is a mnemonic device, not an art project!

Recorded Stories

If you can’t be together and Zoom storytelling doesn’t feel like a good fit, pre-recorded stories can be a wonderful way to stay connected. Imagine your grandchild or grandchildren listening to your voice as they go to bed at night! Collect some favourites tales or write your own, and then record yourself with an app on your smart phone or a digital recorder. If you don’t know how to transfer the recording to your grandkids, ask someone more technologically savvy for help. This can be a wonderful way to collect and preserve family or personal stories for posterity as well.

Finally, keep in mind that the most important element of a good storytelling session isn’t how polished or prepared we are, or even the content of the story. What our grandkids will remember most is the gift of our presence and our wholehearted attention.

Rachel Dunstan Muller
Rachel Dunstan Mullerhttp://racheldunstanmuller.com/
Rachel Dunstan Muller is the mother of five, and a children’s author. Her previous articles can be found at islandparent.ca.

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