"Let me hear my own voice," a preschooler shouted plaintively as his peers talked loudly and all at once.
While exploring the room, one child had discovered a large basket of finger puppets. Soon, 5 children with their 10 arms inside the basket were choosing favorites. Fingers wiggling, the 3- to 4-year-olds’ voices grew louder as they competed to tell their stories.
Suggesting taking turns is the logical solution. Yet, at times, it’s not that simple. How long is a turn? Does equality or equity enter the picture when deciding? Remembering the exasperated child’s successful efforts to expand oral language last year, I asked him to be the first storyteller.
As the children listened, some spontaneously joined in. Having it become interactive seemed like a solution to this very long story, but this was not met with the storyteller’s approval.
"I’m not done yet," said the boy.
With each attempt by the children to appropriately join in with their puppets, he’d throw his arms high, gesture dramatically and repeat, "I’m not done yet." The previous year, as his language skills developed, I was delighted to have him dictate a story that covered several handwritten pages. Each time I thought the story had reached an end, he quietly proclaimed, "I’m not done yet."
Now, a year later, I was curtailing his story as others were eager to tell theirs. Growing up can be such a paradox, and very confusing. Developing social intelligence is one more task for the busy preschooler.
The irony did not escape me as the path of "use your words," arrived at the crossroads of "taking turns." Starting with their first babble, family members encourage speech. We celebrate the addition of language to their massive learning repertoire.
In school we ask children, "use your words," applauding their efforts. After celebrating their verbal skills, we now ask them to wait before expressing them. Waiting can seem like a very long time for preschoolers.
As the children learn to stretch their capacity to take turns, we can utilize their desire to spontaneously join in. The storyteller was modeling many skills of puppetry. I pointed these out to the others. When he told of his puppet going to the park I said, "See how he’s moving his puppet to match his words."
The children stopped squirming and refocused on the story. "I see him going down the slide. Can you make a slide for your puppet?"
I watched with mutual enjoyment as the children used their arms and legs to create slides for their puppets. Everyone was having fun participating.
The boy continued on with his story and the children again grew restless. Wondering how to subtly help end the story, I remembered my new grandson’s favorite nursery rhyme, "Animal Fair." Ending the story with a song would allow for group participation.
The monkey fell out of his bunk, and slid down the elephant’s trunk, the elephant sneezed and fell to his knees and…
As the children listened to and mimicked the words, I decided to edit the last phrase about it being the demise of the monk, the monk, the monk. Instead I improvised with and that was the end of the story, the story, the story.
As I repeated, "the end, the end, the end," thinking we had eased through this experience of taking turns early in the year, I again heard the words, "I’m not done yet."
Realizing it was time for another strategy, I set firmer limits with, "next time you can finish your story. We want everyone to have a turn hearing their own voice." He nodded thoughtfully.
Early in the year, as you are getting to know the children, taking turns can be more challenging. For very young children waiting to take turns may seem like an eternity. As the year goes on, we teachers are consistently stretching their capacity to stay focused and patient.
It does take skill and a certain level of comfort to open and close the story through others besides the storyteller. You will have to intuit when it is best to spontaneously jump in and segue from the storyteller’s own words so that others can join in.
You will also need to stay alert as to when to help bring the storyline back to the original storyteller before many separate stories begin taking place. (Although, this is sometimes useful and opportune as the children organically create break out groups of dyads and triads.)
To help preschoolers develop a story, we sometimes need to ask "and then what happened" or other prompts to keep the story moving forward. You may also have to help them "find an ending."
Consider the time of year and skill level of the children. We want to build on expanding their patience incrementally. As teachers, we may have to evaluate in the moment whether trying something else will refocus the children or just increase their wiggling.
Things to consider regarding Taking Turns:
- Skill/developmental level of the children
- Time of school year
- Group attention span: noticing if the audience is attentive or checked out. How many remain attentive and may model behavior for the others?
- Will scaffolding help?
- Equality vs. equity
Have fun learning along with the children! Their creativity sparks our own.
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