A shy, barely five-year-old girl arrived at school carrying a big box of crayons "with the points still on." One of her classmates offered to swap them for her set of markers and the proud crayon owner agreed, only to discover that most of the markers were completely dried up. After some tears and considerable negotiation, their teacher set things right.

At story time that day, she shared the picture book classic A Bargain for Frances, by Russell Hoban (HarperCollins, 1978). Although the characters in the story are badgers, and the bad-trade item was a broken tea set, the message about fair play was not missed by the children. They criticized the tricky character in the book for being "mean," "sneaky," "not nice," and "a cheater." The book was instrumental in teaching a subtle yet significant life lesson to the entire class.

Children's lives are infused with stories at home, at school or the library, and in the media. How can we harness the power of literature and use it to develop positive character traits in young children?

The Story's the Thing

Storytelling is a fundamental way in which human beings process and share events as well as the feelings surrounding those experiences. The human brain is a remarkable processor of stories, both real and imaginary. Whether it's stories about our families, teachers' stories that capture the wisdom of the profession, or the tales we communicate to children, stories encapsulate life's memorable moments and enduring lessons. The ability to create, share, and respond to stories is one of our defining characteristics as human beings.

High-quality picture books are the perfect teaching tool because they deal with powerful emotions, model effective coping strategies, and present complex concepts in developmentally effective ways that even the youngest child can understand. The picture book complements words with what brain research tells us leaves the most indelible impression: powerful visual images.

Which Life Lessons?

The moment that educators begin to discuss character development, objections are raised by those who fear it might preempt family values or venture into religious ground. There are, however, virtues in human beings on which most of us can agree. We nurture these characteristics in young children because we prize them in others and strive to develop them in ourselves. For instance, we hope that children will learn to handle powerful emotions, maintain a positive outlook, work hard, exercise self-control, overcome adversity, and attain wisdom. These and other attributes operate mainly from within. They are rooted in self-knowledge. Virtues can be interpersonal as well. They are regarded for their effects on others-such things as expressing gratitude, showing compassion, learning to share and cooperate, respecting differences, treating others fairly, and demonstrating thoughtfulness. For most of us, some combinations of these, perhaps along with a few others (for example, honesty, generosity, loyalty, and integrity), define a good person. Character is the sum of all the positive attributes a human being develops.

Sharing Stories With Children

Before You Read

Preview the book carefully. When books deal with sensitive issues, it is very important to preview them. If you have any doubts whatsoever about a book being offensive to families or ill-suited for children, seek other opinions before sharing it. Think about what your early childhood setting will accept and how your students are apt to respond.

Set a purpose at the outset of story time. Rather than expecting children to listen to a story and immediately appreciate it, tell them what to listen for. Set a purpose that underscores the story's message. For a book about working together to solve a problem, you might say, "Today we are going to read the story One Duck Stuck (by Phyllis Root, Candlewick Press, 2003). As I read it, I want you to look at what each animal does to help the duck and find out what works to get the duck unstuck."

As You Read

Draw attention to the point of the story. Think about the "learning between the lines" of a story. Rather than interrupting the story's flow by quizzing the children, use the moment it takes to turn the page to wonder out loud. For example, the underlying theme of Mem Fox's book Koala Lou (Voyager Books, 1994) is unconditional love. You can draw children's attention to that theme by pausing on the page where Koala Lou has her back turned and is sobbing over her failure in the Bush Olympics and remarking, "She looks so sad about losing. I wonder what her mom will say?" To encourage older preschoolers' perspective-taking abilities, try Doreen Cronin's Diary of a Worm (HarperCollins, 2003).

After You Read

Develop skills in leading discussions. When books deal with sensitive issues, try organizing your comments around the classic stages in therapy:

  1. identification ("Who was your favorite character in The Wolf's Chicken Stew?" [by Keiko Kasza, Putnam Juvenile, 1996] "Why?" "Is there anyone in Too Many Tamales [by Gary Soto, Putnam, 1996] who reminds you of yourself?" "How is that character like you?")
  2. emotional release or catharsis ("What was the best part of the book? The worst part?" "How do you feel about it now?" "If you could talk to anyone in this book, who would you choose, and what would you say?")
  3. insight ("Was it a good idea to build a house out of straw?" "What would you say to The Boy Who Cried Wolf?'") Use concrete experiences so that children can realize they have experienced feelings for which they may not have words to express (for example, "How do you feel when someone gets lots of presents, and you don't get any?" "Did you ever wish you could be the baby of the family again?"). Then read Practice Makes Perfect for Rotten Ralph, by Jack Gantos (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2002), a wonderful story about jealousy.

Give every child an opportunity to comment. If at all possible, work with a group that is small enough for everyone to participate — no more than about six to eight children for preschoolers — and solicit a comment from every child. Teach them to say "Pass, please" if they prefer to wait until later to respond but encourage everyone, not just the outspoken children, to reflect aloud on the lessons in stories. Frank Asch's The Last Puppy (Simon & Schuster, 1991) gives children a chance to think about attention-seeking behaviors. The last of a large litter has tried everything to get someone to take him home, including jumping up and nipping, but it is not until he is kind that he gets a good home. Lead children in thinking about the strategies they use to get others to accept them, which work, and which do not.

Stories All Around the Classroom

Here are some ways to include stories and storytelling in each learning center in your classroom:

Dramatic-Play Area

Include props that enable children to enact the lessons of books. Toddlers need to feel secure and learn that loved ones and children, while sometimes separated, are happily reunited. They can briefly dramatize books that describe reassuring routines as in Baby Day! by Nancy Elizabeth Wallace (Houghton Mifflm, 2003). Children will enjoy the drama of misbehaving babies in The Day the Babies Crawled Away, by Peggy Rathmann (Putnam/Penguin, 2003).

Preschoolers enjoy stories about love and care in extended families such as a visit, in rhyme, to grandma's house from Full, Full, Full of Love, by Trish Cooke (Candlewick Press, 2002). Flannel board cutouts of the main events in the story can encourage retelling and develop a sense of sequence. Consider also the enactment of stories about being lost and happily reunited, in which toy animals are used to represent the various characters (for example, Have You seen My Duckling? by Nancy Tafuri [Scholastic Inc., 1990] or Where's Spot? by Eric Hill [Putnam, 2003]) and a child plays the parent searching for the child.

When addressing kindness, read the easy-reader version of Aesop's fable The Lion and the Mouse, by Gail Herman (Random House, 1998), in which a small, resourceful character can help a powerful one, and provide dramatic props (for example, a net, a fake fur "mane" and "tail" to represent the lion, and a set of ears for the mouse). At first, read the book aloud while children take turns performing the actions and using the props. Store these items in a basket or other attractive container along with a copy of the book and a recording of the story to facilitate spontaneous reenactments later on.

Unless young preschoolers are guided to do something more productive, they will use puppets to enact a brief episode of fighting. Try introducing puppet plays with a single scene from a book that demonstrates character development. In David and Dog, by Shirley Hughes (Simon & Schuster, 1981), a young child loses his most treasured stuffed toy, and his older sister makes the sacrifice of trading a prize she won at the school fair to get Dog back for him. Three puppets and a small stuffed dog are sufficient to dramatize the story.

Peer relationships can be positive or negative. Kindergarten children will revel in dramatizing school stories about knowit-alls as in Timothy Goes to School, by Rosemary Wells (Puffin, 2000), and bullies such as The Recess Queen, by Alexis O'Neill (Scholastic Inc., 2002). Invite them to invent dialogue and enact the incidents that cause these characters to mend their ways.

Block and Manipulatives Area

After reading The Tub People, by Pam Conrad (HarperCollins, 1995), in which the little Weeble-like figures come alive, invite children to use the plastic people and animals at the water table and in the block area. They can use them to invent further adventures that demonstrate the life lesson of using your wits.

With a small group, construct a concrete Venn diagram that compares character traits using large hoops that are positioned in an overlapping fashion. Put a toy that represents the characters, such as a teddy bear for Baby Bear and a doll for Goldilocks, at the top of each hoop. Then write children's descriptive words for each character on index cards. The final challenge will be for them to think of some ways in which Baby Bear and Goldilocks are alike (for example, both are young, both eat porridge, and both like chairs and beds that are just right) to place in the overlapping section.

Watch the video of Pat Hutchin's Changes, Changes (Weston Woods, 1973), in which two wooden figures build their way out of disaster using a set of unit blocks. Supply blocks, wooden people, and vehicles so that children can demonstrate their understanding of maintaining a positive attitude and overcoming hardships.

Using the blocks and toy animals work with the children to set up a story map for Eric Carle's The Grouchy Ladybug (HarperCollins, 1986). Provide the children with a ladybug made from a bottle cap and read the story aloud so that children can take turns sending the ladybug on her travels and using their voices expressively. Leave the scene set up for several days and post a sign saying "Please do not touch" to teach children to respect one another's work.

Art Area

Create a classroom mural with the important message "It's the thought that really counts," as in The Mother's Day Mice, by Eve Bunting (Sagebrush Education Resources, 1988).

Share Sometimes I'm Bombaloo, by Rachel Vail (Scholastic Inc., 2002), the story of a girl who is even-tempered but occasionally has an angry outburst. Discuss the use of color to show emotions in general and in the illustrations of the book. Then invite children to draw or paint a split-page picture-depicting going "bombaloo" on one half and returning to normal on the other half.

After reading Tom Rabbit, by Martin Waddell (Candlewick Press, 2001), take digital photographs of children with their favorite toys from childhood. Surprise children by including a photo or drawing of your favorite childhood toy, too. Create a class book, "Our Favorite Things," with captions dictated or written by the children. Then listen to the show tune "My Favorite Things." Invite children to create an illustrated song chart for the listening center.

Click here to view and download the Developmental Chart CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT - Age by Age (PDF)