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Read about a workshop on this topic, in its 17th year: www.TellingStoriesToChildren.com!

Telling Stories to Children

by Doug Lipman

(This article appeared in Storytelling World magazine.)


This time, Doug addresses the question:
"I tell mostly to adults. What is different about telling stories to children?"

Children love listening to stories. I doubt you'll find anyone more hungry for stories, and I'm sure you'll love satisfying their hunger.

If you've begun your storytelling career with adult audiences, however, you need to be alert to new demands on your technique and on your repertoire.

Quick Feedback-And Its Absence

The biggest difference between child audiences and adult audiences is that young children let you know immediately how you're doing. If you're not connecting with them, they squirm, interrupt, or get up and leave. If you're succeeding, they settle in to a comfortable position and gaze at you in rapt adoration. With feedback like that, it's much easier to change direction or hold the course, as needed.

Older elementary and adolescent audiences, however, may not give feedback. For many of them, to be "cool" means to hide all expressions of enthusiasm. Don't expect them to make an exception on your account until they know and trust you. But don't be fooled by their studied indifference, either. Adolescents are as hungry for storytelling as preschoolers; they just don't dare to show it the way youngsters do, and don't yet know how to show it the way adults do.

Repetition and Listening

Most young children need to hear a story many times in order to master it cognitively and emotionally. Be prepared to provide the necessary repetition, especially if you will see children more than once. Just as adults may come up to you after a performance to tell about their own experiences, children need and want to share back with you. But children often have less ability to wait until the end to do their sharing - and the more you've touched them, the more urgently they may need to tell you about it. So it may be up to you to find ways for them to tell their stories and reactions. You might try:

  • a making-up-verses participation song
  • a structured storytelling opportunity with a partner
  • a time after your storytelling when you sit and listen.

Toning

Your tone of voice tells children more about you than your words do. In our society, it's common for adults to treat children with condescension. Stand in any public place long enough, and you'll hear an adult address a child with a syrupy-sweet tone otherwise reserved for talking to pets - or with a shrill tone that suggests exasperation or blame.

Older children have usually become sensitized to such affronts to their dignity, and have learned ways to resist disrespectful or authoritarian treatment - whether through disruption or withdrawal. The essential technique for telling stories to older elementary children and adolescents, then, is to completely purge your telling of any trace of condescension or "lecturing." Talking down to them will produce more dramatic results than waving red at a bull. If you tell with the same respect you'd give to your adult audiences, on the other hand, they'll respond in kind.

Participation: Tool or Goal?

The role of audience participation varies in importance with the age of your audience. For preschool children, physical participation might be the only way to ensure their attention for more than a few minutes. Young children think by doing. For them to imagine the rabbit going to sleep, they may need to stretch their own arms and yawn. To fully enjoy the Fleeing Pancake's sass, they may need to join in taunting each character. Of course, such participation also makes it even easier to know whether you've engaged their attention! Don't think that preschoolers won't listen to a quiet story or to one that allows only an internal response, however. Often they will. But when that magic doesn't happen through other means, participation is the surest route to engaging younger children in your story. Older children, on the other hand, for whom the approval of their peer group has become essential, may be very reluctant to take an adult's suggestions in any visible way. For such children, their participation may be the sign that you've finally won them over after weeks of work - not the tool that wins them.

Demands on Repertory

What stories should you tell to children? The quality of the stories, should be as high as - or higher than - the quality of stories that you tell to adults. To paraphrase music educator Lenci Horvath, don't tell a story to children that isn't worthy of being passed along to their grandchildren. While the quality needs to remain high, the cognitive range may need to be narrower. The youngest children need the simplest treatment of the issues, the boldest images, and the highest contrast between characters. Where can you find such high quality stories with simple, bold lines? The largest storehouse is oral tradition. Many folktales, fairy tales, legends, myths, tall tales, etc., are perfect for children of various ages. Of course, you may also find appropriate stories in classic or contemporary children's literature, or in your own experience or imagination. Emotionally, children tend to favor stories with themes relating to their developmental issues. Adolescents and preschoolers, for example, are both engaged in widening their worlds. So both groups tend to respond to stories that deal with their efforts at greater independence, including themes such as:

  • fear
  • competence
  • hope vs. despair.

To get an idea of what stories would be appropriate for a particular group of children, follow these steps:

  1. Ask what stories they already love.
  2. Think about those stories in terms of cognitive complexity and emotional content.
  3. Look for stories that answer the question: what "story gifts" would I like to give someone who is dealing with these issues at this level? (Don't overlook the gifts of playfulness and zest!)
  4. Choose stories that meet those requirements, and that you love and want to share.

If you offer children your thoughtfully chosen stories with humility, respect and joy, they'll love you for it - and they'll express their love as only children can.

For a workshop that takes on these issues about telling to children - and more - see Telling Stories to Children - led by Judith Black and Doug Lipman.

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This page was last updated on Friday, November 28, 2003
Copyright©2003 Doug Lipman