Telling Stories, Telling Tales

Whether it’s a children’s classic, a family anecdote or an original tale, nothing enthralls a toddler more than a spellbinding story told straight from her parent’s lips. With a few secrets from the storyteller’s bag of tricks, it’s easy to become a master teller of tales.

“Not only does storytelling bring you closer to your child,” says Leonard S. Marcus, a parent and a children’s and adult book author who wrote Ways of Telling: Conversations on the Art of the Picture Book, “it also develops his language and communications skills, which will help him learn to read and write.” While most parents are perfectly comfortable reading from a children’s book, spinning a made-up yarn can be daunting. Where to begin?

Guess who’s in the story? Your toddler loves to hear about himself, so why not tell a real or made-up story about him? That’s what Lisa Schertler, a primary school teacher in Mt. View, Calif., has always done with her two sons, Liam and Jack. “Something as mundane as a trip to Grandma’s takes on new meaning when I mix in details about our real lives with classic stories.” Little Red Riding Hood comes alive when Grandma becomes Schertler’s mother, she says, and the contents of Little Red Riding Hood’s basket are the real snacks that she and her sons take along on visits to Grandma.

Fit yourself in. Your own childhood experiences are an equally captivating starting point, says Schertler. How about that baby bird you discovered in your backyard and nursed back to health when you were a child? Or the time you and your parents went on a camping trip and thought you heard a bear outside? Or how you felt the first day of school? Don’t worry about whether the facts are correct; it’s the sound of your voice and the enthusiasm of the presentation that will captivate your child.

Sights, sounds and silliness. “Adding sound effects is a wonderful way to vary the pace of a story and add a playful element,” says Marcus. Wasn’t that bear you thought you heard outside your tent growwwwwling? Certainly that baby bird went chirp-chirp-chirp as it called for its mother. The same is true of actions. Scrunch up your face to show how scared you were the first day of school. “Or turn an action or event topsy-turvy by telling about a cat that barks or a horse that moos in order to add an element of humor,” says Marcus.

Repeat a phrase. It’s unlikely that toddlers will understand all the details and action, but they definitely respond to such elements as repetition, which also familiarizes them with the way stories are structured. “A story like The House That Jack Built,” says Marcus, “builds upon itself, and a young child begins to recognize phrases and respond to them.”

And don’t be surprised if your child wants to hear the same stories over and over again. Even if you get tired of a tale, there’s no reason why you can’t add a few embellishments to keep it interesting time and again. Even better, requests for repeat performances are testament to your newfound storytelling prowess.