Early Childhood Education



From birth, the world of babies and children is organized by scripts that reflect familial and cultural child-rearing patterns. It could be said that babies join and change the story of a family. When children begin using language they use it to organize the world. This typically takes a narrative form. As they begin to engage in sociodramatic play they act out scripts from their everyday lives that reflect events they seek to understand. Parents and early childhood educators use stories, both oral and written, to impart information, lead children into literacy, and help children cope with difficult issues in their lives. They also tell stories because it is a natural and enjoyable component of child rearing.

Narrative is a fundamental component of early cognitive and emotional development. As the child enters a particular culture he begins to understand and adopt scripts that form his understanding of himself in the family and larger society. Language, that used by adults and older children to guide him as well as that he uses to reflect on his own activity, begins to structure his understanding and memory. As he develops the capacity to pretend, he uses such play to act out stories that represent various aspects of his life. This can be simply arranging blocks of various size in a way that represents family members, acting out bedtimes rituals, or replicating the actions of television superheros. By the time he reaches school he brings with him highly developed, but culturally varied, ways of describing his world (Heath, 1983).

Throughout the world families and communities transmit information about how to behave, how to survive and who to remember through various forms of story telling. And the literatures of the world’s cultures include narrative tales that chronicle the history of civilization from the beginning of time to the birth of the most recent member of the community. The folklore of a society is often captured in the stories that are told to children.

The role of early childhood educators in supporting development and learning is characterized by both explicit and implicit use of narrative. The transition of a child from home to child care literally involves adding to the child and family’s story. A new set of characters and setting enters the child’s life. This can be done in a manner in which both parent and caregiver attend to the child’s capacity to weave new elements into his story, giving him words and scripts through which he can understand his new surroundings (e.g., “Your cubbie is where you put your coat when you first come in, then you go to the sand table. Daddy comes after we play outside.”). Such scripts provide consistency and security. They also provide the framework in which he constructs his understanding of how the world works.

Children’s narratives themselves play a large and established role in the early childhood classroom. A book corner with clearly displayed books, a dramatic play area with dress-up clothes, and manipulatives with which children can act out events of interest and imagination are typical in a developmentally appropriate preschool classroom. Teachers read a wide variety of children’s books to children both at circle time and in small groups. Narratives represented by these books cover the range of interests of young children from retelling ancient myths to addressing daily concerns like separation and going to sleep, and from imparting basic information to sparking children’s imagination. Early literacy activities including reading chapter books, reading aloud and silently, and writing become more prevalent in the early elementary grades. Teachers, in providing materials for play as well as in selecting reading content, should be sensitive to the cultural characteristics of the families and communities they serve. In the development of writing children are asked to tell of what they know and what they have experienced; they become writers of stories.

A notable curriculum innovation that is deeply grounded in the use of narrative is the storytelling method described by Vivian Paley (1990). She maintains that children use stories to help understand what they are most interested in, “nothing less than truth and life.” Through the telling of stories children learn to organize both their cognitive and affective lives. Caregivers join this process by transmitting the valued stories of the culture as well as the ways stories are created within the culture. See also Development, Language; Language Diversity; Play as storytelling.

Further Readings: Bruner, J. (1990). Acts of meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; Heath, S. B. (1983). Ways with words. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press; Nelson, K. (1989). Narratives from the crib. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; Paley, Vivian (1990). The boy who would be a helicopter: The uses of storytelling in the classroom. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; Sutton-Smith, B. (2001). Emotional breaches in play and narrative. In A. Goncu and E. Klein, eds., Children in play, story, and school. New York: Guilford Press.

John Hornstein