Written by Graeme Williams
I want to preface this by stating that I love books. New books, old books, comic books, science fiction, adventure, books with bent spines, books with dog ears, first editions, reprintings, hardcover, softcover, anthologies, ebooks, you name it. I love reading, and I love encouraging reading in others. However, there came a day when I, as an Early Childhood Educator, I said enough was enough. No more books.
When I first began working with children, I knew that reading to them was important. I had learned in school that reading was a great way to model new vocabulary, to teach concepts such as empathy and friendship, and, what I thought was most important, provide entertainment.
I loved reading, but mostly did it in my head, not for an audience. So, I started with the greats like Robert Munsch and Dr. Suess. These were books that I was familiar with from my childhood and didn’t feel too uncomfortable to read. It didn’t take long before I found myself enjoying reading these classics and found that the children were enjoying them too.
I started to get more comfortable and found myself making monthly trips to the bookstore. I bought books about under-the-bed monsters, books about anthropomorphic animals, books that made the wacky look wonderful and the wonderful look within reach. And the children were eating them up. I discovered that if I invested myself fully into the storytelling process I could pull the majority of a group into it with me. I did this by not only doing voices and doing actions but by inserting the group into the story. Sometimes I would act scared when I turned the page to find a monster. Sometimes I would cry if something bad happened to the protagonist. I would pull the children into supporting roles, encouraging me to continue the story and get to the resolution together. Sometimes I would just ask questions.
The children loved storytime and I loved storytime. Until I didn’t.
I slowly started to see flaws in my approach to storytelling. It is very difficult to engage the entire group in a story. I knew this, but I found that I had the most engagement when a book was brand new. The children didn’t know what would happen in a new book, or how I would tell it. They were excited at first, and the first few readings would go great. After those few reads they would get to know the beats. They knew when I would scream, when I would cry, what questions I would ask, and how the story would end. With each reading I would lose the attention of one or two children here and there, and gradually those children would become more focused on sitting in the front and seeing the pictures unobstructed than they would be excited to be part of the storytelling. It is okay for the children to want to see the pictures and be up front, but I found these interactions were more appropriate for smaller groups or one on one attention. My difficulty engaging the majority of the group was increasing with each reading.
My first solution to this problem: buy more books. This benefits the bookstore (support local!) and benefits creators (support creators!). And it benefitted the group, for a time, but the issues didn’t go away, it was a band-aid solution.
My second solution: rotate the books. Put some of the books away for a while, bring them out again a month or two later, putting away other books for a while. This also can make things better, but children know when a book is new or not. They are surprisingly observant when you don’t want them to be.
Third solution: I stopped reading books. Problem solved.
Don’t worry, it’s not as severe as it sounds. Instead of reading stories to these large groups of children I started telling stories to them.
This started as a simple exercise. I asked them to close their eyes while I talked about the story (the book itself could not come out, or I would have children wanting to see the pictures). I got them to imagine the pictures from the books. Then I got them to close their eyes and I started making up my own stories, having them picture what I was describing in their head. As I got more comfortable, I started asking questions again.
Now, I will sit down with a group of children and just ask them “What do you want me to tell a story about?” or say something like “One of you give me a fruit, one of you give me an animal and one of you point to a spot on the map”. I have found the results to be incredible. It gives the children ownership of the story. If I don’t know where it is going, I can ask the children what they think would happen next and I can run with that. If they want, I can repeat the story sometimes over and over and over again. If they are getting tired of it, I can surprise them by doing something completely unexpected. I can still use a story to teach children new words. I can still introduce new concepts, new ideas, new questions to the children. I can still be crazy, maybe even more so than before. The best part, you don’t have to be a good storyteller to do this, you just need to be comfortable. Children don’t care about plot. They care about being an active part of the storytelling and having an invested storyteller.
To be honest, the title is just a little bit of flourish. I still read books to children, typically in one on one or small group interactions, and I have a few favourite creators that I will still buy everything from (check out Kim Smith’s Pop Classics series, or anything by Oliver Jeffers) and read to a large group. Books can still be found on the shelves of the rooms I work in. They are still great for showing culture or nature and real-life images, or teaching about the things I know nothing about. They still have their place.
But for group story opportunities, I am going to stick to telling stories.
If you want to learn more about the values and philosophies of Tykes and Tots ELC, please check out our home page or contact our management. If you are interested in enrolling your children in one of our programs, please do so here.