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  • Writer's picturekatrice horsley

Story as a tool in children's language development

This is an image of one of the less restrained outfits that I wore when working with children. It was to fit in with the theme of Alice in Wonderland and included a cut out section in the front of the huge wig which housed a toy fish on a bird swing. I am nothing if not imaginative when it comes to engaging with children.

The ability to imagine is pivotal for us as humans; without it how can we envision a future, alternative versions of ourselves or solutions to problems ...?However, I have often heard teachers and librarians state that some traditional stories, especially fairy tales, are too imaginative for children and too dark and scary to tell. I disagree. Let me explain why.

Fairytales are dark and gruesome, yet there are heroines as well as witches, heroes as well as monsters and for me this polarisation of good and bad, light and dark, right and wrong is a reflection of how a child see's their world. Children have not lived long enough to create subtle or nuanced responses to their experiences - a three-year old either loves you or hates you, is angry or sad. They do not say, " I am feeling a little emotionally ambivalent today. I'm not sure where I lie on the emotional scale." Traditional fairytales better reflect this polarisation. It is in fact a core component of traditional fairytales, yet still at the end of the stories, after all the fear, rage and sorrow, the fairytales finish with a happy ever after. What a great message for those children who feel all the feelings and what a great way to acknowledge and 'work' with these feelings within the safety of the story.

In his book, 'The Uses of Enchantment,' the psychologist *Bruno Bettelheim states that:

"Fairy tales are loved by the child not because the imagery she finds in them conforms to what goes on within her, but because--despite all the angry, anxious thoughts in her mind to which the fairy tale gives body and specific content--these stories always result in a happy outcome, which the child cannot imagine on her own."

Although Bettelheim has been discredited for some of his other work, there is a truth in his work regarding the use of fairytales. Many therapists, such as the inspirational and wise Alida Gersie, co-author of the book 'Storymaking in Education and Therapy turn to stories to help us uncover what it is to be human and for children, who are still building up experiences, stories allow them to try on different identities and experience different worlds and situations whilst still feeling safe.

I would actually argue that younger children need fairytales even more than older children. As children develop, one hopes that their language develops and that they can build a vocabulary that enables them to name the feelings they experience. 'Emotional Literacy' has been a buzzword for many years now, something we want children to develop. What traditional fairytales give children is the opportunity to experience the emotions of the characters in the stories - anger, sadness, fear, dread... and develop the vocabulary to describe them. However again and again and again in all the countries I have worked in I have witnessed a rather BIG problem to do with this.

Let me elaborate. I am often asked to work with Early Years practitioners or librarians to help them develop better storytelling skills and to make their storytelling more engaging, stimulating and multi-sensory (we will come to that later.) I give them exercises to do regarding their voices and focus on the importance of the 4 R's - (Rhyme, Repetition, Rhythm and Rest) as a method for promoting engagement with young children. I also underline the importance of emotional authenticity in the telling of the story, ie. angry is angry, scared is scared and I ask them show it in their voices. Then, after they have been showing emotions and using their voices beautifully, I ask them to tell a story and almost every time they revert to this type of default, children's storyteller voice - WHY?!

You can see what I mean and I am sure many of you will recognise it too. I feel it is all to do with keeping children 'safe.' Yet many children's lives are not safe. What I recommend we do is:

  • state the emotion,

  • ask the children to show us their version of that emotion

  • then reflect it back to them.

This means the children do not become unsettled by you suddenly becoming angry, as they owned the emotion first and shared their version of angry with you. It looks something like this:

In this way the child who may be seeing violence in their home and feeling angry at what they see, can feel anger, name anger and explore anger within the safety of the story. We do children a great disservice by keeping them 'safe;' as the fact is children's lives are not safe and they will feel all of the emotions and we need to support them in naming and understanding these emotions. Stories provide a powerful tool for this.

Ok, so enough of the emotional authenticity - let us go on to the sensory aspect of storytelling in Early Years. (Though I admit I use this in all of my training sessions and workshops, irrespective of age.)

I can remember, as a young child who was a selective mute, that I had a whole imaginative landscape in my head and a tumble of words and ideas. The problem was I could not speak them. I was classified as ESN (Educationally Sub-Normal) and kept back in my first year of school as I had no way of sharing my knowledge and skills. Since those days I have been desperate to enable children and people who struggle to communicate in a 'normative' way to share their knowledge and 'voice.'

In the late 80's and early 90's I started working with groups that included people who were illiterate or children who were disabled, in fact groups that had people and children with a whole range of abilities and needs. I discovered that by using fabrics and objects and most importantly a piece of ribbon, I could provide a way of allowing them to notate their knowledge and their stories. I ended up with something I called 'Story Kebabs' and they are now used in the UK, Belgium, Netherlands and many other places. Essentially they are a long rectangle of plain fabric about 30 cm by 70cm filled with scouring pads, pipe cleaners, pom-pom balls, pieces of fabric, net, buttons (larger ones for younger children) and anything else you may have lying around. The 'kebabs' are rolled up with a range of these materials inside and then tied with a length of ribbon about a metre long.

I tell a story and then ask the children/participants to use the kebabs as a way of 'notating' the story along the ribbon, which essentially becomes a narrative line. It is wonderful to see some children using something scratchy to be the 'daddy bear' because they say it is like their daddy's beard, or others choosing something soft, as their daddy is cuddly. So now, rather than the child saying, "once there was a daddy bear," they will say something like, "once there was a brown, scratchy daddy bear..." This sensory approach to notating and creating a story not develops vocabulary which is essential to a child's later success, it also helps with sequencing skills and fine motor skill co-ordination, positional language, and comparative language, to name but a few.

In other workshops the participants are invited to create their own stories using what is in the Story Kebabs. The objects offer them sensory stimulus to ideas and thoughts. Often with people who feel 'overwhelmed' this hands-on approach is vital in helping them externaIise the internal chaos they can be experiencing and sequence it into sense. I have also used this idea to develop 'feeling boards' where children take a piece of fabric or an object that reflects how they are feeling that day - some children take something scratchy, others, something soft and fluffy, another something dark and hard. These are useful ways of us noting how a child feels without them needing to articulate it, especially when they do not yet have the language to do so.

It is necessary I feel to mention here that with some children non-literal objects do not work. Often if a child is autistic they cannot 'see' a character within a piece of fabric - this is where you may need some literal representative toys of people or animals - just make sure they do not all feel the same. If you have some that are soft fabric, some that are plastic etc it will enable a better vocabulary to develop. And please do not underestimate the power of those adhesive googly eyes in making a scrap of fabric into a puppet that all children can identify with!

If you want to find out more about my work in language development with young children (or anybody else for that matter) take a look at my YouTube channel, especially this episode here - it will give you more ideas to help you connect with your children and to help them connect with you. Or drop me an email and book me for your organisation. It is a subject that is very close to my heart as I know deep in my body, the fist-clenching frustration of being unable to communicate who you are and I also know the unfettered joy at being able to communicate your world to someone else, without even needing to open your mouth and speak.

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