Story Telling - Fun Ways to Engage Your Kids!

We all love a great story and, as Miriam McCaleb writes, storytelling creates much more for the family than just folklore. 

Once upon a time there was a mother whose words wove webs of pure love over the heads of her children. Once there lived a little boy whose grandfather's tales taught him great things. And have you heard the one about the daddy who reads stories with such funny voices that his little girls giggle until they snort? All of these lucky characters have had their lives enriched by the power of story.

Since the first humans developed language - long before we invented print, let alone 3D animation - we've been telling stories. Telling stories with children is an amazing way to strengthen relationships, teach lessons and entertain. It's totally eco-friendly, uses no batteries and doesn't need to cost any money whatsoever. You can do it pretty much any time, any place. Storytelling is an incredible tool, but how many of us consciously embrace it as a means of enriching, entertaining and educating our families?

Amidst the busy-ness of life, work and family, adding "storyteller" to your already packed parental resumé might seem overwhelming. Even unnecessary. But think how storytelling can add to the quality of your family's life, and how it is something you already do.

Much of our social connection is about stories - you might not even notice you're doing it. But think about how you connect with those you trust: "Oh, what a rough night. I think she's teething, and when she woke up at 3am ..." That's the story of your night.

And "I had the biggest argument with my husband..." is a story waiting to be told. Let's be honest, friends, what is gossip if it's not the tasty retelling of others' stories? See? You're already a storyteller. You've got the skill set. Now, to redirect our storytelling energies from gossip to growth.

Tales to teach
This is an idea worth pursuing. Pay attention to those whose stories you enjoy. How do they use pitch, gesture or pace? Do they use humour, silly voices, or ... dramatic pauses? How do you use those things? Would you, could you, call yourself a storyteller? It's worth a crack. Why? In part, because stories are an incredible tool for teaching.

Jonathan Gottschall is an author and academic. His book, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, argues that science backs up the long-held belief that story is the most powerful means of communicating a message. He reminds us that facts alone don't change minds, but stories can change our hearts, and this is where transformations occur.

Think of the way that all major religions have always communicated their beliefs and behaviour. The lessons of our cultures are learned through story. Consider how legends and fables helped people to understand the world, or how to function in it.

In New Zealand, we inherit tales from all over the world (I promote the lesson in The Boy Who Cried Wolf despite there being no wolves here). The New Zealand Guild of Storytellers acknowledges the value of our heritage in the Celtic world and te ao Maori - both keen users of story.

As well as the cultural and ethical lessons that stories provide, they can connect us with our personal histories. In The Power of Personal Storytelling, Jack Maguire says that sharing real-life stories brings "a greater intimacy with each other" and "a stronger sense of self".

We learn our whakapapa (our genealogy, our place in our family's history) through use of story.

I asked Nathan Mikaere-Wallis to expand on this idea. Nathan is a trustee for the Brainwave Trust, a former university lecturer and a member of Te Runaka ki Otautahi. He says, "It's as though pre-European Maori had an inherent understanding of the role of repetition in building brain connections. Whakapapa are learned through repetition and ritual and this begins in utero."

In fact, Maori have a special tool for this purpose. The pumotomoto is placed on the pregnant mama's belly, and the story of the baby's whakapapa is chanted through it, like a glamorous ear trumpet of old.

Family ties
There is a real sense of belonging that comes from knowing where we come from, either through knowing our own whakapapa (family), or through the random stories that are told about families. With story, we honour our family's past as well as present. My Nanna Marks died when I was a baby, yet I feel I know her. I know her because my mother took the time to tell me stories about her. I know that she made pikelets shaped like animals. I know she had a killer vegie garden. I hope that when she was little, her adults told her about the family who'd gone before, just as I will tell my kids about the family now gone. I love to imagine our children connected to our ancestors not just by the strands of DNA that link backwards through time, but also by the stories that join us.

And you know what? It's not necessary to delve so deeply into the past to find stories of interest and meaning. Start with more recent stuff: tell your kids about your own childhood, although I still struggle to accept that the late '70s are officially "the olden days" in the eyes of my big girl. Exploring childhood photo albums is an excellent starting point. The editor of this very publication has a delicious phrase for this, invented by her older son. He begs her to "tell me a story from your voice", and I can't think of a purer expression of this appreciation for the connection with family.

Don't worry if you can't think of anything particularly exciting, the tiniest details are fascinating. ("No internet! Wow!") And if you struggle to remember, don't be afraid to make something up. My dad had me convinced that I was named after the Good Ship Miriam, on which he'd been a cabin boy. I heard those stories for years and never quite knew if they were true or not. It was part of their appeal.

Even more recent than your own childhood are the stories of your own kids in their infancy. It will be a sure-fire success. Try telling your ancient three, four or five year old tales of their birth or early days. Most children love nothing more than to hear again and again the details about their noisy cries during their first bath or the funny wee face they would make upon awakening. They will eat this up.

Fantastic fables
If you can't rustle anything up from your own or your family's history, call on those stories that have been passed throughout generations to intrigue, spook and mystify. For example, Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks and their pals.

The 200th anniversary of the first book of Grimms' fairytales has just been celebrated, and the extra attention has reminded us just how wonderful - and how macabre - the original versions were. You're the best judge of how bland or spicy to make the retell, depending on the age, temperament and preferences of your children.

The anniversary was celebrated here with a competition to create a New Zealand fairytale. The winner of that competition (and you have to Google the story - it's wonderful!) is Renata Hopkins, a mother of two children who lives in Christchurch.

She's also a professional at telling stories: years of writing scripts for Shortland Street confirms it.

I asked Renata about life at the intersection of mother and storyteller. She says, "If I had a dollar for every time I've heard the words, 'Tell me a story', I'd be rich!

"I think all the stories I've made up for my daughter were there as background material when I came to write a fairytale, so I was grateful for all the schooling I've gained from her (sometimes incessant) requests. Now when she tells me a story of her own, she often opens with that magical story doorway, 'Once upon a time...'"

And they lived…
Magnificent: adults and children teaching each other with story. And how worthwhile it is to embrace made-up stories, whether a one-off tale, or an ongoing saga, like the Willie Weetbix stories  of my childhood, or the stories that my daughter and I make up these days. Our stories are about a little girl and her family: characters remarkably like our own family (but with infinitely more patient parents!).

Sometimes they are pure entertainment, and other times a launching pad for discussing dramas or hiccups of the day and re-imagining possible outcomes. The stories have helped us to work through life's biggies: birth, death, disasters and relocation.

But it's not always quakes or death. I am often surprised by how simple the story can be. Some of my big girl's favourites have featured plot lines such as missing the school bus, the kids having to cook dinner or the neighbour's cat going missing.

All you really need is a beginning, a middle and an end. Often, an introduction, a problem and resolution. Kids will like it best if there is a child responsible for the solution to the crisis.

So don't be afraid to give it a whirl. 


Tell me a story from your voice
Fun ways to warm up your storytelling muscles and get children involved:

  • Check out books on tape or download treasures to keep you entertained and inspired while driving, working out or chopping vegies. One to get you started: "The Moth", is a storytelling podcast that is often fantastic. It's for grown-ups, but it's kid-friendly. Podcasts are many and various, just check out iTunes. 
  • If you're waiting in the car, in a queue or elsewhere, put down that smart phone and instead play a game of "I wonder..." Ask each other questions about the folks you see: I wonder where she's going? Where has she been? What is her name? It can be fun to invent stories and scenarios about random passers-by. 
  • Try "Word at a Time Story". The title is kinda self-explanatory - people take turns at adding one word. There may be a phase when your kids are around age seven where their word is always "poo", "bum" or "fart" and this can kind of wreck it, but in the years before and after the toilet humour phase, this is a simple, fun game. 

Useful props
Pull out a few props from your storytelling treasure trove.

  • Of course, there are books. Be mindful of the myriad of ways to use children's books. It can be helpful to watch people whose speciality is storytelling, for example at story time in the library, or ask to gate-crash mat time at kindergarten. 
  • There is a huge range of styles for children of various ages - from babies' board books to chapter books. Don't fret if a young baby or active toddler doesn't want to sit through a book from start to finish, it's still valuable to offer them the experience. Toddlers might get a lot from lift-the-flap books, babies benefit from having a cuddle and a chomp on a book. It all creates positive associations with literature. 
  • Be willing to make up your own story, or to sing a song inspired by the pictures (Oh, Old MacDonald, is there anything you can't do?). Remember, there really are no rules! 
  • Soft toys, dolls and puppets are all excellent helpers in telling stories - I keep a little knitted rooster finger puppet in my purse and he's abated many a near meltdown in the line at the supermarket. The kids like him too.
  • Draw pictures or doodle as you tell a story. Maybe you'll wind up illustrating your tale, maybe you'll just keep your hands busy as you immerse yourself in the moment.

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Once upon a time there was a geeky girl named Miriam. She grew into a teacher, a wife and a writer. But, alas! Her heart echoed... until she bore two beautiful daughters, then things were luscious, rowdy and blissful. Learn more of her grateful ever-after at




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