Jules had spent several weeks under the snack table, not speaking and unwilling to participate in class activities. But when he put on a chicken puppet he eagerly said, “Bock, bock, bock...Eat corn,” as part of a storytelling experience. His teachers were pleased, and the storyteller felt validated that her techniques were having such a positive impact.
This scene, witnessed recently in a small child development center in Virginia, is not an isolated one. Storytelling is an integral and frequent part of an early childhood classroom. Whether it is a teacher reciting a nursery rhyme, a child explaining how she got a Band-Aid on her knee, or children re-enacting a favorite fairy tale during play, stories are everywhere. How do we incorporate storytelling activities in the daily curriculum? This article will explore two creative ways, imaginary journeys and the use of puppets, to enrich the storytelling experience.
An imaginary journey provides the framework for a story. With this technique, the storyteller helps the children pretend they are going to a special place that either supports or augments the story. For instance, if the story takes place at the zoo, the children may take an imaginary train ride to get to a pretend zoo where the story will unfold. By having the children pretend to go to a “story forest,” or a “story lake,” the teacher provides a ritual that helps children recognize and use the listening and processing skills necessary to enjoy tales being told orally. In addition, imaginary journeys help children focus on the story and the storyteller; they help children delineate reality from fantasy; they introduce vocabulary and concepts necessary to understand the story; they provide opportunities for teaching modes of transportation and other age-appropriate curricular goals.
Taking the Journey
As with all creative drama in the early childhood classroom, imaginary journeys should move from the concrete to the abstract. When the teacher discusses a particular destination, it is best to start with a model, diorama, picture, or photograph to help the children anticipate the place they will be “going.” Next, a method of transportation must be chosen. This may be done either by the storyteller or by the children. The mode of transportation can tie in with the story or can be unrelated. “Transportation cards,” index cards with an illustration and word written on them, support emergent literacy by associating a word with a picture and an experience. Transportation cards help children choose how the class will travel. If the cards are used, the storyteller should include more fanciful ways of travel, (e.g. floating, water skiing, magic carpet, air balloon) and again differentiate between real and imaginary ways to travel.
To start the children on their trip, ask a child to demonstrate a movement that will symbolize the travel. For example, a teacher may ask, “Bert, how would you move if you were a helicopter?” Alternately, you may ask the children, “If we are all going to ride the bus together, how would we stand?” The children can then move around the room led by the storyteller or a line leader.
Props may vary. Popular ones include blankets and parachutes to symbolize water, a spray bottle to simulate ocean mist, environmental tapes for children to hear the sounds of the forest, or hand lotion to provide the smell and feel of sun screen. The actual classroom environment may also be altered. The lights, for example, may be dimmed or the temperature lowered.
Once the children have arrived, the storyteller can point out the changes in their surroundings by asking, “How do we know we’re at the grocery store now?” to encourage the students’ observation and verbal skills. When the children are seated, the story can begin.
Returning from the Journey
After the tale is told, it is important to “return” to the children’s classroom. If the children are not returned to the real world they may become distracted and think they are still pretending (Kelner, 1993). To make the transition, the teacher can just repeat the imaginary journey in reverse, or choose a new method to travel back to the classroom. Upon returning, the teacher may ask, “Where did we pretend to go?” in review, then follow up with questions like “Where were we really?” “Where are we now?” “We were pretending to be on an airplane before. Are we pretending now?”
Puppets have always been popular in the early childhood classroom, although in many classrooms they are underused. For a storyteller, they can be an important and effective tool in maintaining audience attention, involving listeners in the telling of the story, and providing a visual and kinesthetic experience to augment the aural one.
Puppets can be used in a number of ways in storytelling to have these positive effects. One successful technique is to give the puppet a consistent personality, and make it a regular part of each storytelling experience. If you are telling a familiar story, for example, you can begin the story, and have your puppet interrupt with an incorrect plot line: [teacher] “Then the Wolf said to the little pig...” [puppet] “I know, I know, he said, ‘What big eyes you have, Grandma!’” Young children find it quite funny and entertaining to correct the teacher. In addition, this technique gives the storyteller an opportunity to review a story and assess how well his or her audience knows it before moving on to use the story in other ways.
The use of a consistent puppet personality can also prepare for a storytelling experience, or review a tale after it has been told. To use a puppet in these ways, it is most helpful if the puppet has a curious personality, and asks a lot of questions: [puppet] “What is the story about?” “Will it be scary?” “Is there a wolf in this story?” etc. This provides an introduction for the children and gives them information they may want, but be afraid to ask about. To review the story, it is helpful to tell the story without the curious puppet in attendance. Then when the puppet appears, he or she can ask questions that prompt the children to retell the story. This is an opportunity to ask directed questions like, [puppet] “What happened first?” “Why did the pigs go off to build houses?” and more open ended questions like, [puppet] “What part did you like best? Why?” and “What do you think happened after the story ended?” This type of questioning provides follow-through strategies that help the child extend his or her interpretation of the story, thereby strengthening emergent literacy skills.
Another way to use puppets in storytelling is to have the puppet co-tell or tell the story. In this case, the puppet might be a “special visitor” in the classroom who is either a character in the story recalling what happened, or a character that knows the story and tells it in the third person. For example, an old man puppet might begin a story by saying, “Well, I was just minding my business, counting my money one day, when this teeny, tiny little boy, only as big as my thumb, appeared on my table. I tried to catch him, but he ran into a crack in my table and scurried off to the room where I keep all my treasures. The next thing I know, there’s a wild honking noise, and I realize someone’s run off with my goose that lays the golden eggs!”
The key to successful storytelling with young children is to involve them in the experience, making them feel they are a part of the process and a part of the story. This kind of hands-on, enjoyable learning may be more important to a young child’s long-term education than gaining the specific skill(s) targeted in the activity. If imaginary journeys and the use of puppets increase student participation in storytelling, which in turn increases hands-on, enjoyable, and effective learning, there is a strong argument to include storytelling, puppets, and imaginary journeys as part of an age-appropriate curriculum. Perhaps more compelling, however, is the smile on Jules’s face as he puts on a puppet and becomes the chicken in a farm story.
Ann Richards, M.A., is the associate director of the Wolf Trap Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts. She publishes in the fields of creative teaching and parenting and is the mother of two young children. She can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
Engler, L. & Fijan, C. (1997). Making puppets come alive: A method of learning and teaching hand puppetry. New York: Taplinger Publishing Company.
Hunt, T. & Renfro, N. (1982). Puppetry in early childhood education. Austin, TX: Nancy Renfro Studios.
Kelner, L.B. (1993). The creative classroom: A guide for using creative drama in the classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.