Spontaneous Storytelling with Children, Part 1: A Lost Art?


Editor’s note: Today, we begin a four-part series with columnist Rhonda Ortiz. Enjoy! LMH 

A Lost Art?

A Lost Art?

“Tell me a story!”

It was a steamy summer afternoon in D.C.  I had been babysitting our friends’ children – Clare, age five, and Kate, age three – so that their mother could finish her doctoral dissertation.  We had just returned from the park, hot and sweaty and tired.  Lunch, clean up, quiet time.

And then came the request.  I, of course, looked for a book.  No books.  I somehow missed the many children’s books stacked high on a shelf.

“Oh, oh! A story!” said the other sister, joining us.

Where are the books? I thought.  What am I supposed to do, make one up?

The idea of me making up a story – any story – any good story – had never crossed my mind. But the girls sat there, eager and ready for a tale.  And so I began.

“Once upon a time” – because all stories begin this way – “there were two princesses.  Princess Clare and Princess Kate.”

“Wait!” interrupted Clare.  “Can I be Princess Annabelle?”

I gaped. “Okay.”

“And I’m Princess Judy,” drawled three-year-old Kate.

“Alright,” I agreed. “Once upon a time, there were two princesses.  Princess Annabelle and Princess Judy.  They lived in a shining castle at the top of a mountain…”

The girls sat eager and engaged as I fudged my way through one tale, and then another, and then another.  Princess Annabelle and Princess Judy live in the Castle of Udolpho (with apologies to Ann Radcliffe) in the middle of the Machanitcal Forest (a cross between magical and enchanted).  They meet and befriend a knightly dwarf and a unicorn named Nellie, and together they slay the monsters and dragons they meet in the magical twists and turns of the forest, only to return home to the comforts of their castle and the love of their parents, the King and Queen.

The girls have not forgotten these stories.  For several years after both their family and we moved away, the girls and their parents have continued to tell stories of the Castle of Udolpho.  New characters have been introduced, others lost.  The Princesses have voyaged to the ends of the earth and back, keeping their knapsacks always ready, filled with magic wands, clothes, food, bandages, flashlights, and the definitive edition of the Monsters Field Guide, that the princesses themselves wrote and continue to revise.

When I visited them, three years later, Clare and Kate were eager for more stories.  “Can you tell us a Machantical Forest story?  Please?  Please?  Please?”

So I did.

Spontaneous storytelling with children is a delight.  It is also something of a lost art, I suspect.  In our home, a board book is always within reach, and we read, rather than tell, stories.  (My stories with Clare and Kate are the exception, not the rule.)  It makes me wonder what we’re losing, if we are indeed losing it.

What does oral and spontaneous storytelling foster in the child – and in the adult – that the board or picture book cannot? 

What makes for children receptive to – and participants in – oral storytelling?

And what literary devices – good, bad, and otherwise – do we naturally gravitate toward in telling a spontaneous story?

I will be exploring these questions over the course of several articles.  I encourage you to share your thoughts and special memories of storytelling, either as the child hearing or the adult spinning the tale, in the comment box.  What are the special stories you tell in your family?  Do you prefer books or making up your own tales?  Do your children tell stories?

Copyright 2013 Rhonda Ortiz


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  1. I look forward to your series since I totally agree about the lost art. About 2 years ago, the stereo went out in the vehicle I drive most with my family of 4 and I haven’t replaced it because it was so good for our family. We are now masterful at retelling Bible stories – especially mysteries of the rosary. We also tell “silly” stories for everyone to fix (Mary and Joseph were on their way to Denver…’No- They had to go to Bethlehem). My girls have many of their cousins and friends telling “3 things stories” too – Gimmee 3 things (haybale, Princess Caroline, mosquito) and we make up stories that use those 3 things somehow. And we go around the car with everyone taking turns and it is great.

    • That sounds like a great game! Have you heard of Storymatic cards? Same idea, but the ideas come out of a box of cards. We use those in my creative writing classes.

  2. Storytelling is so wonderful. My Daddy was a master at it. He would often start with a familiar story and adapt it until it was all his own. My siblings and I still remember these fondly. The neighborhood children were also enchanted by his stories. These “children” are now in their 30’s but still recall his tales of his imaginary puppy “Chocolate Pudding.” Recently my nearly 3 year old begged me to tell him a story to help him go to sleep. Turns out that my son uses this technique frequently. I was a little hesitant as to how to begin since I too am accustomed to book reading. But he gave me the starting point of a giant and before you knew it we had a story about the giant who loved pumpkins and ran out of them. We had a few giggles as we continued to adapt the story to include some super heroes. I was a little sad when he fell asleep, but am looking forward to continuing the story!

  3. Pingback: Spontaneous Storytelling with Children, Part 2: Creation and Receptivity | CatholicMom.com

  4. Ruby hasn’t asked me to make up a story yet, but she does routinely ask me to “sing a song about ______”, which takes improvisation to a whole new level! I used to make up stories all the time as a kid, though, so I am excited to do that with her.

  5. Pingback: Spontaneous Storytelling with Children, Part 3: On Receptive Children | CatholicMom.com

  6. Pingback: Spontaneous Storytelling with Children, Part 4: Literary Devices | CatholicMom.com

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