I have been telling stories to my children for about three years, and they keep asking for more. I am certainly no expert, but here are 6 tips for making up stories for children. Several of these ideas come directly from Waldorf teachers, who are of course the master storytellers.
By the way, while there are many types of stories, these tips are for the ‘make it up as you go’ sort.
1. Set the Tone
A good story can be a special occasion, and a treat for both children and the storyteller. So before you start, make sure everyone is comfortable and somewhat calm. Children might be in their beds with the light out. I have heard of some parents lighting a candle. If you’re in the car or outside, you might have the children to take some deep breathes – or join you in a familiar song – before beginning the story.
2. Choose a Recurring Character
While each of your stories can be different, it helps to have a consistent main character (or two). In our house, the character is “Hopalong the Kitty Kat.” My kids will ask, “Can you tell a Hopalong story tonight?” Children are drawn to consistency, and using the same character makes it easier for the storyteller.
When it comes to your character, don’t get too caught up in uniformity. In our stories, Hopalong is sometimes around 7 years old, and sometimes he seems older. Sometimes he acts like a cat, but often he seems like a young boy. My kids will ask clarifying questions, but overall they don’t seem to mind.
3. Begin With a Simple Action Line
You may be tempted to start with “Once upon a time,” and then lay out an entire scene. For me, I find it easier to jump right into an action, filling in the details later. For example, “Hopalong woke up, crawled out of his basket, and noticed something new.” The story gets moving, and my creativity has to start spinning. If you get stuck for what happens next, just stall. “He brushed his teeth… combed his hair… and looked outside to see what the weather was like…”
One note here: you are the storyteller. Children tend to pop in with suggestions or ideas, which you can playfully incorporate, but only if you want. It’s your story – ask everyone to be quiet to find out what happens next.
4. Include Visual Details
This tip comes directly from Waldorf teachers, who explained to me that if you can see an image in your own mind, then you can simply say what you see. This is how rich visual details emerge in a story. For example: perhaps your character goes to the market and meets a grocer. What is the grocer wearing? An apron? A grey and blue striped apron? Does the grocer have glasses? Perhaps round silver glasses propped on his or her forehead? Give these details, and your children will be enchanted. They will likely remember these little images for days.
5. Create a Problem
Something has to happen in the story, and the easiest way is to create a problem that your character must solve. The simpler the better – young children especially do not need elaborate plot devices. The problem could be that the family went to the beach and forgot the towels. Or it’s someone’s birthday, and the cake has to be a surprise. Again, think simple: an apple on a tree is too high to reach.
Once you create the problem, the fun becomes how your character will use his or her cunning and courage to figure it out. This is excellent for children’s development, as they are building their own sense of bravery and life skills to face the world. Sure the character can have setbacks, or get help from other people, but in the end the character triumphs. Your children will love it.
6. How to End
I used to stress over the endings to my stories; now I don’t worry too much. A classic standby is to say that after such a long day the character went home, got tucked in, and went to sleep. On the other hand, you can simply summarize the arc of the story as you slow down your voice: “And that was how Hopalong finally made a shovel, which he kept in the garage for the rest of his life.”
When a story finishes, a child might exclaim, “More, more – that was too short!” or “Tell another one!” (My children do this.) Hold your ground. Better to leave one story dancing in their minds, then to muddy it up with extensions or other tales. Say something like, “That’s the story for today, and tomorrow there may be another.”
Making up stories for children is a rich and rewarding experience. Plus, you don’t need any materials. Try it tonight, and enjoy the journey.
Matthew Kozlowski is a PCWS parent. He lives in Alexandria with his wife Danielle and daughters Maria and Grace. Throughout his career he has been a teacher, camp counselor, school chaplain, Sunday school teacher... and other duties as assigned.