The Stories Children Tell

Making Sense Of The Narratives Of Childhood

Susan Engel

Henry Holt and Co.

The Stories Children Tell
1
The World of Children's Stories
Every work is a stepping stone to a personal confession.
You are Running River, and I am Hawk Eye. Let's say you were sitting in the longhouse, and I heard a bear coming up. So I jumped out from behind a tree, and I speared that bear with my tomahawk. And then you cooked the meat over the fire. Then Chief Sitting Bull played on the drum and we had a ceremony. And I was the hero because I killed the bear. And I got an extra feather for my headdress.
Every story a child tells, acts out through play, or writes contributes to a self-portrait--a portrait that he can look at, refer to, think about, and change, a portrait others can use to develop an understanding of the storyteller. Each time a child describes an experience he or someone else has had, he constructs part of his past, adding to his sense of who he is and conveying that sense to others. Each time a child makes up a story about something that might have happened to himself or to another, he expands his world. The stories we tell, whetherthey are about real or imagined events, convey our experience, our ideas, a dimension of who we are. It is through telling stories that children develop a personal voice, a way of communicating their unique experience and view of the world.
Told by a 5 year old to his mother in the midst of playing a game of "Indian" with her, the story about the bear is the kind an adult might easily overlook. Though not uncommon, much of interest lies behind it. Who is he in the story, and what do the events described reveal about his thoughts and experiences? How did he choose those particular details, and what determined the organization of his story? In addition to what the story can tell us about the teller, it does something important for him. In telling his mother this story, he presents himself as the hero, brave and capable, an honored member of the group. He has painted a portrait of himself.
This example captures the kind of story children often tell while playing. But as the next example shows, children reveal themselves through other kinds of stories as well, this one written by a first grader:
The walking eyeball
 
The eyeball was a yoyo. He ran, yoyo yoyo. The eyeball was with his little brother. And he did a rolypoly bunk. And he squirted a rock out of the hose. There was a windstorm. They didn't blow over from the windstorm. And they were holding on to their feet-hands. He kicked another eyeball. He thought it was a ball. He was rolling in circles. He went home and he saw the sun.
This story, more arresting and clearly original than the first with its vivid use of language and striking choice of charactersand events, also invites questions about the story, the storyteller, and their relation: Is the author a 6 year old or the eyeball, and if so, why an eyeball? What do the dramatic events in the story suggest? Why does it end the way it does? Where and how did this author learn to weave together description and drama?
We tend to assume that only the stories we read by accomplished authors are complex, replete with meaning, and worthy of close analysis. We often dismiss children's stories as simply cute and rather transparent, limited in meaning and complexity. They can seem charming to us because of their simplicity, their outrageousness, or their odd construction. They can seem obvious when we think the child is communicating a thinly veiled fear or wish. But children's stories are often complex in style and voice, construction, and content. What a child's story means can be as interesting, though different, a question as what Anna Karenina means. If we listen closely, it offers us a new way of looking at and understanding children. Children's stories can be vital to us as parents, teachers, and researchers because they give us insight into how children of different ages experience the world, and how a specific child thinks and feels. And as an increasing number of researchers are discovering, stories and storytelling are vital to children themselves and to their development.
This book is about how young children go about making up and telling stories. It is about the content and construction of their stories. It describes the paths by which children move from the barest one-word references to events from their past to the long, complex fantasies of preschoolers at play. And it is about the ways in which the stories that pervade children's lives contribute to the child's burgeoning sense of self and developing relationship with the world.
The Pervasiveness of Narratives
A child's world is filled with stories. Long before children can recount their own tales, they hear stories told to and around them. If we listen to those stories and attend to them rather than treating them as background noise, we begin to appreciate their frequency in the child's life. Babies are surrounded by the stories parents, siblings, and friends tell to one another, and to them, a captive audience. By the time children are 2 and 3 years old, they begin adding their own voices to the stories that surround them.
If you spend a morning with some children at home or in a day-care setting, you will hear a multitude of narratives. Children will tell stories to one another, to their teacher, and to themselves. They will tell formulaic stories and wild rambling stories. They will tell complete stories and fragments of stories. They will tell stories about things that have happened to them, things that have happened to other people, and things that couldn't possibly happen to anyone. A great deal of their play is either based on an implicit narrative or generates a narrative in the form of a line-by-line account of their actions. If you offer to tell a story, or even just begin telling one, you will find yourself surrounded by eager, open faces, ready to hear your story. As children get older, they hear and tell an even wider variety of stories, including written stories, novels, and formal reports of actual events.
As one gauge of the extent of early storytelling, developmental psychologists Peggy Miller and Lois Sperry tape-recorded the talk of mothers and toddlers in their homes at the end of each day. They discovered that, on average, for each hour of tape-recorded conversations, almost nine stories were told, often by the parent to the child but sometimes by the child. Althoughno one has systematically assessed the pervasiveness of narratives in the young child's life, if you take all of the research on narrative and compare the reports with one another, you find wonderfully robust evidence for a great variety and quantity of stories that children are exposed to and engage in telling from a very early age. And the narrative experience doesn't end with childhood. In a college class on language development, I asked students how many stories they told in a typical day. Many of them said none or perhaps one. Then I asked them to keep a record for twenty-four hours of the stories they told. They all arrived at the next class session surprised with their own results. They said they had told anywhere from five to thirty-eight stories in the day, and felt that, if anything, they had missed some.
Why are we likely to underestimate the number and variety of stories we tell? Perhaps it is because they are so much a part of our lives that we don't realize their extent and because our first response is typically to think only of well-formed stories with clear plots and identifiable authors. In everyday practice we only approximate this narrative model, however, and end up telling a lot of stories that contain ingredients of this model but don't strictly meet its criteria. Many more narratives are embedded, often unnoticed, in our everyday activity than the well-formed stories we may tell to someone.
Not only are narratives pervasive in terms of the quantity and variety that unfold in the daily life of many children and adults, narratives pervade the inner life as well. Toddlers and preschoolers often construct monologues while playing, going to sleep, and spending time alone. Then, as they get older, their spoken monologues are replaced by dreams, daydreams, and unspoken soliloquies. The stories we tell ourselves, aloud or silently, play a vital role in shaping what we feel, think, and know about our lives.
What is it about stories that accounts for their pervasiveness? Surely, an activity that is so much a part of our lives serves some significant purpose, both in the prosaic everyday aspects of experience and in our more infrequent moments of crisis and transformation. Narratives, for one thing, share a characteristic of language more generally; they give us a new way in which to experience life. As the Russian psychologist Alexander Luria pointed out so eloquently, the acquisition of language gives us a second world, beyond the world of immediate action:
In the absence of words, humans would have to deal only with those things which they could perceive and manipulate directly. With the help of language, they can deal with things which they have not perceived even indirectly and with things which were part of the experience of earlier generations. Thus, the word adds another dimension to the world of humans ... . Animals have only one world, the world of objects and situations which can be perceived by the senses. Humans have a double world.
If Luria is right, and I believe he is, then stories are the second level of experience, par excellence. Living in both worlds, the world of action and objects and the world of stories, is what makes human experience distinctive. Children who have acquired language, like adults, shift back and forth in this double world, each world shaping the other, their stories organizing their perceptions of actions and objects, their perceptions of actions and objects informing their stories.
For my son Jake, every scar on his father's body contains a story. When Jake was 8 years old he went to spend a few days with his grandfather in Vermont. When his grandfather brought Jake home, he told me that Jake had been regaling himwith stories Tom, his father, had recounted of childhood mishaps, including falling off a bike and getting a concussion, walking into a glass door and needing forty-three stitches, and, when a young man, getting knifed while driving a cab in Boston. According to his grandfather, Jake then said, "Boy, I sure hope some things like that start happening to me soon." When his grandfather asked why, he replied instantly, "So that I have some stories to tell my kids and my grandkids, of course!"
Stories reflect multiple strands and levels of our experience. I have just told you a story: about a story my father told me, about some stories his grandson had told him. The grandson's stories were based on the stories he had been told by his father. And my son's main point was that one value in having interesting experiences is that you have good stories to tell in the future. Although not all children would articulate the need to experience things in order to be able to tell stories about them someday, this anecdote about Jake underscores how important storytelling can be to young children. It suggests that already by the age of 8, children have some implicit sense (or, in Jake's case, an explicit sense) of the two stages on which we live our lives: experience and the retelling of that experience.
Jake, like many 8 year olds, already has his own firm idea of what experiences make good story material. He already has a strong enough narrative framework in his mind that he can repeat, fairly accurately, stories that have been told to him. Through his retelling of these stories to his grandfather, he not only expresses himself but coordinates several different relationships and types of information. He uses those stories about his father to know better what kind of guy his father is and what kind of life he has had. He tells about it to his grandfather as a way of letting his grandfather know what is important to him about his father and as a way of being closeto his grandfather. And finally he thinks about wanting stories of his own to tell as a way of projecting into the future what kind of person he will be.
The Narrative Revolution
Despite their centrality in children's lives, stories and storytelling have, until recently, received remarkably little attention from psychologists. If many parents and some teachers tend to dismiss young children's stories as simply cute, developmental psychologists traditionally have either not looked at children's stories at all or tended to look through stories for information about a child's level of, for example, cognitive development.
Research on children's development has often directed our attention to what children do rather than what they say (researchers typically observe, record, and code behaviors: their gestures, performance on various tasks, solutions of problems). This is due in part to the predominance of behaviorism in mainstream psychology during most of this century, which posits that psychologists should concern themselves with people's actions rather than their thoughts and words. Even when researchers are interested in what children say, it is often only because they want to know what children of a given age are capable of: Can they think logically? Can they sequence events accurately? Can they remember a list of items?
During the 1960s and 1970s, as psychologists began to use the computer as a model for the mind and developed new methods of research, an emphasis on the way we think was reintroduced into psychology. Research on information processing described human thought and resulting behavior interms of decision trees, flowcharts, and various other computer processes. These accounts describe the young child's mind as a series of processing rules, nested in ways that allow the child to build increasingly complex strategies as a function of his or her daily experiences.
In recent years, some of the ideas that grew out of information processing have led a growing number of psychologists to look at both children's and adults' stories in a provocative new way. Stories, they argue, are not only something we tell at a party, in school, or on stage, nor are they simply so many signs of developmental competence. We also think through stories. In a spate of recent books, cognitive psychologists have suggested that narratives are the form in which we organize experience, and that stories, or the outlines of stories, guide not only our memory but also our experience of what is happening and what may happen in the future. That is, we take in fragments of information and organize them in a narrative form: first this happened, then so and so did this, then that happened over there.
This renewed emphasis on how we think has allowed us to take a fresh look at children's experiences, at what children say, and at the role of meaning in guiding how we think. After all, stories are told by people to people. They reflect the values, interpretations, and ideas of narrator and listener. Jerome Bruner has argued that while we may learn about the physical world through logical rules and abstract principles, we learn about the social world through narratives. As children take in the stories they hear all around them, they also take in a particular interpretation of events and experience. People experience their lives as a series of overlapping and fluctuating stories. The beauty of this idea is that it helps explain how children become integrated withtheir culture. Listening to and telling stories are cultural activities. As children learn the story form, they also learn about their culture. In turn, through stories, aspects of their culture shape the way they think about and remember experiences.
Stories and the Self
If it is true that narratives are the fundamental form in which we structure and communicate social experience, how do they affect us both day by day and over the span of many years? Over the course of our lives, we continually build a sense of self through our stories of personal experience. We remember events and occasions and repeat those experiences to ourselves and to others in a story form. We do this with exciting and important events, the kinds that make "good story material," and we do it with the banal everyday experiences of life as well. Take these three simple examples, from a family dinner table conversation.
(Mother to one of the children)
Guess what happened while you were away? You know how the cat was missing? Well, we went over to Lucy's house to call for her. Even though she had been gone so long, we thought maybe if she was still somewhere around and she heard our voices she might come back. And we went over there and called and called, and Sam called out, "Peep, it's me, Sam. And you're Peep. Remember me, the little kid who pets you all the time?" But she didn't come, and so finally we went home andSam was really sad that we hadn't found her. And guess what? A few hours later Lucy called us and told us Peep was at the door! She had come home because she had heard Sam calling for her! After all those days!
To the people in this family, this is an exciting experience. The children love their cat dearly, and Sam, the protagonist, is both amazed and gratified by his role in bringing home the lost cat, and the parents are deeply touched by what the event reveals about Sam's attachment to his pet. The story crystallizes these personally meaningful aspects for storyteller and listener alike. It's a story they may repeat again and again, and some day the children may repeat it to their children. As time passes, each family member may develop his or her unique version of the story.
Less involved events are also related in a story form.
(One of the children to the whole family)
"Today at camp I fell down in the grass. And the grass cut my leg. It really hurt. And Kerry put some first-aid cream on it."
(The mother looks at this child for a moment, silently acknowledging his story, and then gives the youngest child, a 3 year old, a chance to contribute a story by asking)
"And what did you do at your camp today?"
"Played. And Lisa sang us a song."
The first child tells a short but coherent story about what happened at camp. The 3 year old gives the simplest of narrative responses: It has the elements of narrative without being afull-fledged story. Still, it has hints of things to come, a building block toward the child's ability to order experience and convey it to others within a story form.
Over time, some important stories will remain vivid, and the everyday ones will fade or become merged with others until they simply form a general impression of experience at a given time in one's life. The story about the lost cat may remain significant for one member of the family (perhaps Sam) and not for the others. The second and third stories may be forgotten by all but blended into the two children's narratives of what their childhood summer camp was like. What makes a story important is highly individual and subject to complex psychological forces. Sometimes an event that seems totally trivial to the audience remains indelibly imprinted in the mind of the storyteller.
Children not only tell stories of actual experience to build a sense of self, they also invent stories about things that might happen, that couldn't possibly happen, that they wish would happen, or that they hope fervently will never happen.
Once there was a dog. He loved kids. He was very happy His name was Ike. He saw this black thing and it was a ship. So he climbed on the ship and the ship took him to Africa. He saw lots and lots of lions and bears and tigers and monkeys. He ran away and he went in the bushes and he saw a bushman, and the land of Africa. Then he got back on the ship and the ship took him home and he saw his mommy. The end.
Invention is as central as recall in the construction of stories, and of the self, regardless of whether the story usesspecific recollections. This 5 year old has invented a story about what might happen, but it includes personal material as well: He does have a dog named Ike, he has been learning about Africa, and he was very concerned at the time about feeling close to his mother.
Children weave together real concerns, real experiences, and fantasy to convey what is important to them. This is not peculiar to children; as the Spanish film director Luis Buñuel once said:
Our imagination, and our dreams, are forever invading our memories; and since we are all apt to believe in the reality of our fantasies, we end up transforming our lies into truths. Of course, fantasy and reality are equally personal, and equally felt, so their confusion is a matter of only relative importance.
It's not just what we remember that shapes our experience and our sense of who we are. It is also how we remember. Do we remember isolated images, fragments of dialogue, or complex events in sequence? Do we remember in detail or recall only the bare bones? Do we remember the feelings associated with an experience or just the actions? Or do we remember in a way that captures not only what happened but how it felt?
In a recording of adults reminiscing about their childhoods, one man talked about how severe his father was, how scary the punishments were. But, he mused, he could never remember what he had done to trigger or warrant the punishment; he could only remember what his father did in reaction to the forgotten deed. In reconstructing his memory of his experiences, in telling stories of his childhood, the man sifted out hisown actions and remembered what was for him the powerful part of the experience, his father's wrath. In editing like that, he reveals the conscious personal meaning of the remembered experience: that his father's wrath far outweighed his misdeeds.
Whether a particular story is remembered or not, the act of telling a story is always important to the developing child, because in the telling the child is both practicing telling stories and building up an inventory of stories that contribute to a life story and a self-representation. Who knows how he will use, save, savor, and blend these stories in the future. Why does that matter? Because to a great extent we are the stories we tell, and our memories of personal experiences are what give us a history and a sense of who we are--past, present, and future.
Storytelling and Literacy
Storytelling not only contributes to self-representation, the developing logic in a child's experience, and integration with one's surrounding culture but also seems to play an important role in literacy development. In The Meaning Makers, Gordon Wells summarizes his fifteen-year study of a group of children living in England. It is one of the most ingenious and comprehensive collections of children's language that we have. One of Wells's primary interests was in finding the roots of literacy and discovering the links, if any, among home life, the individual child, school experience, and school success. Literacy, he discovered, is at the heart of school success and originates during the early years.
What this study clearly demonstrates is that it is growing up in a literate family environment, in which reading and writing are naturally occurring, daily activities, that gives children a particular advantage when they start their formal education. And of all the activities that were characteristic of such homes, it was the sharing of stories that we found to be most important.
Many of us now know, through books, magazine articles, and radio and television ads, that it is good to read to our children. But what Wells is saying is that reading is only one part of literacy. Telling and hearing stories is just as important as sitting down and reading sentences in a book. He includes one important caveat: The kinds of stories children tell must be listened to and appreciated so that children can make use of those stories when they need to make the leap into literacy.
Storytelling and Development
We may ask, what are the roots of this clearly essential human process? Children's ability to tell stories does not, of course, arrive full-blown. One of the most fascinating questions about children's narratives is how they first emerge and begin to develop.
Children learn the story form (and the large number of variations on the form) at a remarkably early age. And they do so with such ease that it seems completely untutored and natural. It is natural, but it isn't untutored. As with language learning itself, research has shown that a great deal of parental input and shaping contributes to the child's developing the capacity for storytelling. Children's narrative style and abilityreflect individual, familial, and community values and ways of telling. This tutoring is not usually explicit or formal but, rather, is enmeshed in the casual conversations that children hear and participate in.
In the beginning stages of their storytelling, children often only offer germs of stories (we discuss this further in Chapter 5); but as they get older, their stories become structurally more complex, longer, and more conventionally dramatic. Note the difference between these stories, one told by a 2 year old, the other by a 5 year old. Each is about a personal experience, but they are different in length, structure, and style. Moreover, the first is typical of a toddler's story in that it is told to a parent, whereas the 5 year old is much more likely to engage in storytelling with a peer.
A 2 year old says to her mother:
We went trick and treating. I got candy. A big red lolly-pop and I lost my hat.
A 5 year old says to his friend:
Ya know what? Ya know what? We had a raccoon on our porch. A big, huge raccoon. It was in the tree and he was trying to eat the bird food. And we wanted to kill it, but my Mom didn't want our Dad to kill it. But be killed it anyway. And there was raccoon blood all over the porch.
By the time children are 3 years old, many of their stories will have something like a beginning, a middle, and an end. They will remember stories they have heard and describe their own experiences in a story form. By the time they are 5, children have distinctive personal styles of storytelling. They willalso know the story custom of their particular community and have some idea about what makes a story a story. By the age of 8, most children can tell several different types of stories upon request and can accurately relate complex events.
Narratives and Stories
To appreciate the development of children's storytelling it's important to have some sense of what a story is and what it is not. Most of us know a story when we hear it. A story, first of all, describes something that has happened, is happening, or will happen. It includes some kind of event. Events involve people, places, and actions. Someone does something, and it happens somewhere. Moreover, all events happen within a time frame and unfold over time. Thus in most stories there is some feeling, explicit or implicit, of sequence. First one thing happens, then another. They are related either because one thing leads to another (I ran for the ball, then I slipped, then I broke my arm) or because several things happen that, when described together, reveal a common theme (It was raining, I felt sad, I broke my favorite bowl, my dog ran away; this was a misery day).
A 5 year old recalls a football game played with some other children and some grown-ups:
We really kicked butts out there. When I jumped on Jon, it was like a snake in cement. I wouldn't let him go. Then I grabbed the football. I was like a snake swallowing a frog. The football was the frog.
This is a story because it relates a series of actions over time. There is a protagonist, who is also the narrator. There is a large event--the football game--and within its context a specific event, wresting the ball from a grown-up. There is a place (out there) and an implied time frame (something in the immediate past). There are actions (jumping on Jon, grabbing the ball, holding it) that, when told together, relate a meaning (I was a tough football player). This particular story has little in the way of dramatic tension, a high point, or a resolution, qualities that we associate with good adult literature. It does not have subtle characterization. It is, however, a vivid recounting of something in this little boy's experience. It describes his experience in a unique way. It is not classic literature, but it does contain the rudiments of a story.
The most important thing about a story is that by relating people, actions, objects, place, and time, the storyteller conveys meaning. Part of that meaning is conveyed by the story's perspective or point of view. Events are seen through someone's eyes. In the 5 year old's football story, the boy's meaning revolves around a sense of personal triumph. In children's stories particularly, where sequence and plot are not always clearly developed, the key to understanding, appreciating, and responding to the story often lies in understanding the meaning, the perspective of the narrator.
In Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster aptly describes what happens when we disembed the temporal sequence of events from the fuller meaning of a narrative: "When we isolate the story like this from the nobler aspects through which it moves, and hold it out on the forceps,--wriggling and interminable, the naked worm of time--it presents an appearance that is both unlovely and dull."
The same is true of children's stories. Stripped of their evoked, often nuanced meanings, their perspective, viewedsimply in terms of plot or sequence of told events, they not only appear unlovely and dull, they lose their psychological significance. This poses a special challenge when trying to uncover what is going on, what is developing in children's storytelling. We must identify patterns, uncover predictable and reliable structures or processes, and at the same time attend to the often subtle and idiosyncratic qualities that make narratives so interesting and powerful in the first place.
Some researchers believe a story has to include clues as to why the story is being told in order for it to qualify as a story. For instance, is the storyteller trying to teach her friends a moral lesson, is she trying to explain how her shoes came to be so muddy, is she retelling the plot of a favorite book? These clues may appear by way of the context (a child talking to a circle of friends or responding to the request of an adult), or they may appear as a comment within the story itself (" ... which is why people who brag end up losing ...").
Most of the stories related in this book involve one or two storytellers who know they are telling a story (at the dinner table, at show and tell, in the block corner). But if we're to understand the early development of storytelling, we need to cast a wider net. Here a distinction between narrative and story can be helpful.
A narrative is an account of experiences or events that are temporally sequenced and convey some meaning. A narrative can be of an imagined event or a lived everyday event. But, unlike a story, which is told or communicated intentionally, a narrative can be embedded in a conversation or interaction and need not be experienced as a story by the speakers ("Yeah, when Jerry and me went outside he climbed a tree and fell." "Is that when he got that gross cut on his knee?").
Children often construct narratives in the context of play or playful conversation ("I'm putting my baby to sleep.Then she's gonna wake up and I have to give her dinner, and she's gonna cry and say, 'Mamma, Mamma."'). These narratives may not have an explicit message, although it is almost always implicit and available for analysis. Often play narratives are constructed collaboratively. These are the narratives that are identified, lifted out, and retold as stories by a listener, a therapist, a researcher. They share characteristics with the more obvious kinds of stories, but it's worth remembering the difference. For instance, a child may be able to express complex meanings and sequences in his play with a friend and yet not be ready to construct a story on his own, at the request of an adult. A child may convey deep personal feelings about himself in a conversation with a parent about a past experience and yet not be able deliberately to create a story about those feelings to share with others. Similarly, the adult listener must sometimes weave together the narrative that seems to be buried in the flow of a child's play and conversation, much as Freud, in the guise of an archaeologist of the mind, took static buried memories and symbols and wove them together to make a narrative.
These reconstructed and interpreted narratives are different from but can be as interesting as the more cohesive stories children consciously produce. And, as we shall see, narrative fragments that can be identified in a toddler's talk contribute to that child's ability to tell stories when he is older.
While at the most general level stories pervade the lives of everyone, it is also true that for a child to feel a robust sense of power and ownership, to feel that he can tell all kinds of stories to express all kinds of meanings, he has to live in a place where people encourage him to tell stories. But this is not as simple or as common as one might think.
When you write a book you sit down and tell your story in one piece. You hope that someone will read it. Your image of the reader's response may guide you in what you put in yourstory and how you say it. But you have the floor. Children, on the other hand, usually just hope that they have the floor. Often they have to try and get the floor back from another child or a bossy adult. And they have to try and keep the floor, by telling an interesting and meaningful story.
A lot of the stories children tell happen within other conversations. Children have to find the right moment, not lose their train of thought, and often depend on their listener to help them build the story.
A 3 year old says "I went on a boat," and looks at you expectantly. Are you interested? Do you want to know more? Do you already know all about it? So you say, "That's nice. Tie your shoes." End of story. Or you say, "You did?" "Yeah, I went on a big boat." You show that you are interested and the story gets a little longer and more detailed. You say, "Where did you go on that boat?" "We went to Long Island. With my Mommy I went. And my Daddy." "Was it fun? Did you see the water?" "Yes, we saw the water and we saw fishes! And I ate a hot dog."
Now there's a story. But when you are 3, you often need a partner to tell a story. And what your partner does or doesn't say can have a big influence on what the story turns out to be.
Five-year-old Aron and his mother are lying in a hammock at the end of the day. Aron looks up at the trees and says, "Lots of people like to cut up God's ice-cream cones and use them for firewood." Then he stands up, balancing on the strings of the hammock, towering over his mother and says in a ferocious voice, "I am a wild Naki-Tunya!" He then leaps off the hammock and starts to swing his mother in it, and says to her, "Can string float?" His mothers responds, "Yeah. String floats." He says, "Okay, you are on a string boat."
The seeds of stories are in so much of what children say. In five minutes Aron had sent out three floaters, three possible opening narrative lines. Many openers are left undevelopedand just fade into the never-never land of possible play, possible stories. But they are sent out like signals. The sender, the child, never knows which one will turn into a full-fledged story. What will make it develop beyond a seed and become a full, cohesive story? Sometimes it's just a question of a beginning that is so interesting to the child that she develops it into a story without any prompting. Sometimes a question from another child or an adult prompts her to develop a story. Sometimes another child catches on to the idea, and adds something in a statement or question form that becomes the second line, the beginning of a collaborative story.
As these examples suggest, children have a natural delight in telling a story. Not all children have a receptive audience for their stories. But if they are given encouragement and a responsive ear, they relish in making up stories of all kinds, a process that is vital to their daily lives and overall development.
© 1995 by W. H. Freeman and Company