The importance of storytelling with your family | John McCormick

Storytelling expert John McCormick chatted to us about how storytelling can aid literacy and development. Read his own experiences as a ‘story dad’ alongside some handy tips and tricks.

Like many parents, I enjoyed reading a bedtime story each night to my two sons when they were young. When the story was over, we would turn out the lights, and I would sit next to them until they were asleep. Sometimes we’d talk. Other times my sons would be so tired they were sound asleep before I could turn out the light.

Then one night after the lights were out, my older son, Will, who was about three years old at the time, asked for one more story. But this time, he asked me to tell him a “story with my mouth.” That meant he wanted me to tell him one of my made-up stories, not someone else’s story from a book. And so I did. I just made up a story about the first thing that came to mind. He loved it. So much so that he asked me the next night, “Dad, please tell me another story with your mouth.”

Thus a storytelling tradition was born in our family. Every night since, well into their teenage years, I’ve made up an original story for my sons. Of all the things I do for them, my storytelling is what they love the most. They find their day isn’t complete without one of my stories.

And it’s what I love most, too. The time I’ve spent telling stories with my sons is one of the greatest treasures of my life. It has created a special bond between us, something that no one else does for them.

John McCormick and sons

Storytelling is an easy way for parents to spend quality time with their children, and the benefits to both parents and kids are countless.

First, storytelling is documented as an effective pre-literacy activity, teaching kids to play with words and extend those words into sentences.

Second, storytelling boosts kids’ confidence in their language skills and communications. Storytelling allows kids to be active, encouraging them to conjure up their own mental images and, in the process, stimulates creativity and imagination.

Third, storytelling is a tailor-made activity for parents, especially those who have limited family time because of work obligations or long commutes. Storytelling only takes ten minutes a day, and kids always look forward to that special time before bedtime with mom or dad.

John McCormick reading with son

If you’re interested in giving storytelling a try with your kids, here are several helpful hints:

Make sure your storytelling is interactive.

That means, make up stories with  -  rather than just for  -  your children. A story means so much more to them when they can contribute to it and feel like a part of it. Besides, on nights when you can’t think of a story idea, you’ll need their help to come up with one.

A great way to start your story is by simply asking your children, “What do you want your story to be about?” From the very first question, you’ve gotten them involved in the story.

You can’t tell a bad story.

It doesn’t matter if your story isn’t a prize winner. What matters to kids is that they get to spend uninterrupted time with you creating fun, fantastical stories.

Still, the first time you ask your children what they want their story to be about, they may answer, “We don’t know.” Without missing a beat, tell them to go with the very first idea that comes into their heads. Don’t play it safe by waiting for a better idea to come along. When it comes to storytelling, there’s no need to dip a toe in the water. Dive right in.

With their help, build the story from there. Share ideas for setting the scene, developing characters, creating tension, or adding a challenge for the story’s hero or heroine. Then resolve the challenge in a way that’s humorous, enlightening, or teaches a lesson.

Make your storytelling a regular activity.

Storytelling can’t be a family tradition if you try it only once or twice and never come back to it. If you’re worried about keeping your children engaged, try the following ideas to spice up your storytelling ritual:

•      If you get stuck halfway through a story and have no idea how to end it on a high note, stall for time by asking your children, “Guess what happened next?” They’ll give you a promising idea, or at the very least give you time to think of a new direction.

•      As you gain confidence developing story plots and twists, try playing storytelling games. With a group of kids, have each child make up a character or event and take turns combining them into different stories.

•      Take an actual event that happened that day in your child’s life, and turn it into a make-believe story. Not only is that a sure-fire way to get your child talking, but it will give you invaluable insights into what’s on your son’s or daughter’s mind.

•      Come back to a story on successive nights and change or refine it. Explore how the characters learn from their mistakes and what they might do differently next time. Through the process of repetition and alteration, kids will learn how to adapt and improve.

Preserve your stories.

After you’ve created a story, encourage your children to illustrate it. The process of translating a mental image onto paper will build confidence and stretch creative limits.

Better yet, help your kids write down your stories. It’s fun reading them over again with your children. In my home, my sons and I took our storytelling to the next level - we wrote and illustrated our own book containing the stories we created together. Now, my sons often say they have the confidence to write their own books when they grow older.

Storytelling requires a commitment by parents, but I urge you not to think of it as a chore or obligation. Think of it as an investment in your child’s development, well-being, and happiness.

Before long, you and your kids will have created your own family tradition of made-up, just for fun storytelling.

John McCormick and sons

John McCormick is the author of “Dad, Tell Me a Story,” How to Revive the Tradition of Storytelling with Your Children and a keen storyteller. Find out more about him, and his practice of storytelling on his website.

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