Human beings have long been fascinated by story. I love to imagine that cave dwellers sat around a fire, telling tall tales about the mastodon that got away. Story is the basis for so many entertaining pastimes in our culture: books, poetry, dance, art, writing, movies. Oral storytelling itself is a great way to improve children's oral fluency and help them understand concepts that underpin literacy and literature. Concepts like sequencing, story structure, and the features inherent in different genres are all brought out during regular storytelling sessions.
While I am a huge advocate for reading to children from when they are babes, I also believe it's important to tell our kids stories. For a start, this shows them how to tell stories and they can use parents' and grandparents' tales as models for their own storytelling. It's also an important way to transmit our family's culture. Children LOVE to hear stories about family events, about what Daddy did when he was little, or about the day Mom caught her first fish. Thanks to technology, oral storytelling is even something we can do when distance separates us from kids. Using tools like the telephone or Skype enables grandparents or parents in the military to keep family stories alive.
When children are old enough to talk, they're old enough to try telling a story. Because they've been read to and told stories to, storytelling tends to grow naturally from some family activity. Little ones might like to tell a visitor the story of the enormous spider they saw, or tell the family the story of their favorite toy's adventures. As children become more comfortable with storytelling, it's fun to introduce more structured storytelling activities and games.
One simple way to start your kids on a storytelling activity is to use a picture book you've just read. Go back through (some of) the book, but this time, substitute some elements. For instance, if the story is about three little pigs, make up a new story about three little penguins or three enormous lollipops. If your book is set in a supermarket, try swapping that setting to the moon or a forest. I like to be flexible and leave the book behind when kids don't need its support anymore.
For children who are just starting out with storytelling, it might help to use a puppet to tell the story. Some kids are natural storytellers and getting them to reach an ending is a challenge! But for less confident youngsters, try telling the story of a well-known fairy tale or nursery rhyme together. If you have several puppets, children can choose one and perhaps use a different voice for that character's dialogue in a story. If you're looking for a fun project to try as a family, check out the directions for an ultra-simple puppet theatre at My Little Bookcase.
One of my favorite storytelling activities is to use a story box or story bag. I discussed this at The Book Chook in Create a Storybox. This activity capitalizes on children's love for small objects and builds on the play they do naturally. While telling a story with small toys and objects, kids can move the "actors" around to suit the way their story goes. To make the activity more challenging for older children, have them reach into a box without looking, and use the objects they draw out to make up a story. I have many more activities listed in Sixteen Sensational Storytelling Suggestions.
Once children become at ease with storytelling, they begin to learn that good stories have a beginning, middle, and end; interesting characters who have a problem to solve; and other elements. Storytelling at this stage may lead naturally to story writing, because children want to keep a record of their tales. Another idea is for parents and children to use technology like a video camera to record children's efforts. Don't forget that storytelling can include props, music, song, dance, and puppets with the story! Oral storytelling is a wonderful tool for our parent toolkit, and makes great memories for families all over the world.