How to write stories with children, and why it matters

Learning to tell stories is one of the most fundamental elements of a child's development. So we asked authors Darren Chetty, Nathan Bryon and Robin Stevens how parents can help kids to write them down.

Experts say that encouraging a child to tell stories is one of the most important lessons a parent can teach. Penguin/Ryan McEachern
Experts say that encouraging a child to tell stories gives them a sense not only of what they can do as writers, but also what they can do in the world. Penguin/Ryan McEachern

Everything is story, and stories are everywhere. They give us ways to understand our history, our present and our future. They are how we make sense of the world and ourselves.

Telling stories fosters connections with the people around us. They make us feel, think and remember. And the earlier we learn to tell them, the richer and more colourful our lives can be.

At least, that's what the experts say – that encouraging a child to tell stories is one of the most important lessons a parent can teach.

Or, as children's picture book author Nathan Bryon – whose latest title, Clean Up, is about a child who sets off on a mission to save a Caribbean island from plastic pollution – simply puts it: “Life is a big story, and the more you understand stories, and how to tell them, the better you can understand life, and make better choices.”

Only, as every writer knows, writing isn't always easy. And it doesn't come naturally to everyone. So how can we encourage children to write more? And how do we make it feel more like fun and less like homework? For this, Chetty, Bryon and Stevens have some tips.

Have a laugh

“This is the most important thing of all,” says Bryon. “Storytelling should be fun. It shouldn't feel like homework, or chores. Why shouldn't a child tell a story about her brother's stinky fart? Or about his grandma's crazy dancing at Christmas? Use the world your child lives in and have fun with it. They'll take so much more from writing about their own lives, than about someone else's.”

Encourage them to write about themselves

“Putting yourself in the story is powerful because children often dismiss the value of their own personal experiences in their storytelling," says Chetty. "If they're from a minority background, they need to realise that stories don't just have to be about the white middle-class boys and girls they've read about. They can also be based on stories they've lived themselves. Maybe some of the characters can speak in Polish or Bengali, if that's what they do at home. They could even translate the dialogue into English in brackets if they like."

Mirrors and windows

“Every child needs mirrors and windows in the stories they read,” adds Stevens. “They need mirrors to reflect themselves in stories – being heroes, or being flawed. And they need windows to see people who aren't immediately like them. White kids have so many mirrors and are being reflected everywhere. But what they don't have are many windows. And that's flipped for every background that isn't white, who only get to look out through windows. Things are changing, but it's crucial to offer children a diverse range of books to read to inform their writing and broaden their worldview.”

Let them rewrite stories they already know

“A child needs to know that no story is set in stone, just as their life needn't be either,” says Chetty. “So ask them to rewrite the ending of a book they already know. This is especially helpful for children who aren't so confident with story structures. But here, you have a structure and now you can deviate from it.”

Let the child lead

“The story should always be lead by the child,” says Stevens. “You should be saying, 'Oh, that's your 20th story about aliens this month... that's great. Keep going.' Whatever they write, tell them it's fabulous. You shouldn't be saying, 'Why have you spelled Mississippi with seven s's?' Don't sweat the small stuff, and never criticise grammar and spelling. School will teach them that."

Play the sentence game

“One exercise I've done in kids workshops is to turn it into a game where I write the first sentence of the story and the child does the next,” says Bryon. “At home, a parent might say, 'One day the girl went to the shop.' Then the child says, 'To buy a new unicorn.' The parent then says, 'The shop was in Westfield shopping centre.' And so on. Building the story together keeps the child's imagination running, but also a sense of what you can achieve when you collaborate.”

Write lists of things they like

“I do this with children who are less confident with storytelling,” says Chetty. “We'd talk about foods, TV, clothes, pop stars, football players. That way, you build up a sense of what the child is interested in and then you can zoom in on one of them. List poetry is also the easiest form of poetry, like raps, chants, and even cooking recipes. It all needs structure. It's personal and purposeful and meaningful.

Help them plan their story

“So often have I met kids who are bursting with ideas, but struggle to settle on one story,” says Stevens. “They'll write a few chapters of one story then lose the thread, not knowing where it goes next so they start something new. So I encourage kids to do a basic plan and work out how they'd like it to end. It only has to be a few bullet points, but that will help them finish. You can talk about the likes and dislikes of their characters, help them flesh out the world they're creating.”

Read your stories out loud

“Storytelling is an inherently social exercise,” says Bryon. “Telling a story, say, over the dinner table allows you to read other people's faces and find out what's interesting from your audience's reactions. For kids, reading their story to you out loud encourages them to be proud of what they've written. Plus, kids just want to make their adults proud. Anything you can do to increase the excitement and the connection between you both is great.”

Always ask questions

“The prompt I aways use is, can you tell me more,” says Chetty. “Tell me more about that boy. Tell me more about what happened when he went to the shop. That is a non-judgmental way of expressing interest. Rather than, 'why have you done that?' which can make them feel under pressure to please and ultimately knock their storytelling confidence.”

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