Early Childhood Education

Play as Storytelling

 

Young children tell stories as naturally as they run and climb, making up dramatic scenes and playing them out with no instruction. A preschooler in the doll corner stirring a pot and setting the table has begun a story in which Mama will be a central figure. To enter the story and make it a social event, someone need only curl up in a crib and whine, “Ma-ma, Ma-ma,” or put on high heels and announce, “I’m the big sister. The baby is hungry.” Another child might throw on a cape and run in shouting, “A monster is coming! I’ll save you!” Alternatively, he could put on a vest and tie and say, “I’m home!,” prepared to call the doctor if the baby is sick or become a hunter if the wolf is heard in the forest.

The process is familiar and seldom given the honorific of storytelling. Yet it is fair to say that this self-imposed task of thinking up character, plot and dialogue, the common occupation of children everywhere, is the essence of storytelling. Even before “Once upon a time” or “happily ever after” the stories are there, preparing the foundation for all the narratives to come, laying out the binary verities of gain and loss, safety and danger, friendship and loneliness, power and vulnerability, family and stranger, in repetitive tableaus that move from nursery to outer space to dark forest at the mere mention of a code word or character.

Children would seem to be born storytellers, knowing how to place every thought and feeling into story form. If they worry about being lost, they can become the rescuers who search: “Me and Josh losted our baby,” says Angela, shoving a doll under a pile of dressups. Later, with a slight change of perspective, she moves a step up the narrative ladder. “The mommy and daddy goed hunting for their little baby,” she dictates to the teacher. “It’s under a mushroom someplace.” Finding the baby does not end the play or the story, and should a naughty kitten happen by, a meowing loudly, the plot continues. “Bad kitty, you waked the baby,” soon to be followed by a reverse application of empathy, “Come here, little kitty, hurry up and lock the door, sister, there’s a noise!”

It is play, of course, but it is also story in action, just as storytelling is play put into narrative form. Sam, age four, has never “done” stories before. That is, he has not dictated a story to a teacher for the purpose of having his classmates act it out. When I enter his Head Start classroom, he is playing alone in the doll corner, swinging a man’s tie around his head in large arcs. “Fire, fire!” he shouts. Seeing me, he adds, “Old person on fire!”

“That sounds like a fireman story,” I say. “If you tell me what you are playing, I’ll write it down and later we’ll act it out with the other children.” Sam looks interested. “I’m the fire truck,” he says. “Then the house is on fire. And the older person, and a cat. I put it out and I go home.”

Soon Sam’s story will fulfill its destiny, from play to a facsimile on paper to the theatrical version on a pretend stage, and later, to a continuation in the block area. When the children are seated around the rug, I read aloud Sam’s script, the roles are handed out, and the actors perform their parts with nearly the same spontaneity as in play. After the story is acted out, everyone understands what it means to have a story to tell. The newly defined “storytellers” dictate brief scenes about lost puppies, princesses walking to the playground, Batman in flight, big brothers playing with little brothers, and a mommy who “bumped into a car crash.” One might think the children have been telling and dramatizing stories all along and, in a way they have, since it is so much like play.

In the world of fantasy play and storytelling, children intuitively become the characters that represent their feelings, then work out a plot in which to encase the logical actions. Whether storyteller, story player, or story observer, it is the most compelling activity of the early years. Pretending to be someone else, they find the common threads that connect them to people and ideas, materials and motives, as they turn private thoughts into public events.

“In play,” the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky tells us, “a child is above his average age, above his daily behavior; in play it is as though he were a head taller than himself.” Vygotsky might well have been describing play as storytelling. Two sisters walking along who suddenly tell each other, “Pretend we are sisters going for a walk,” have become storytellers, free to imagine new relationships and responses, parts of new dramas that create their own ceremonies. The roles are assigned and, for the duration of the plot, events will be governed by an evolving set of rules that reflect the children’s own language, logic, and lore.

Play and its core of storytelling are the primary realities in the preschool and kindergarten. You listen to my story and I’ll listen to yours and we will build communal narratives, a growing network of commonly held phrases and images, feelings and perceptions, set inside the known and unknown.

“Sh-sh! The baby is crying under a mushroom.”

“I’m the good fairy to take her to the ball.”

“When she’s older, you mean. We didn’t finish babies yet. And the dad isn’t the prince yet.”

“And the superhero is coming too, don’t forget.”

In half a dozen lines of spontaneous dialogue, these emerging storytellers examine the present and future modes of their craft; the ever-changing scenes are theirs to envision, using the characters of their own choosing. There is an urgency in the children’s desire to organize themselves into a drama, and they know it is up to them to provide the substance and structure that brings each episode to the point where a new set of details can be arranged. It is a process in which the premises are continually reviewed and the participants are emboldened to reach further into new lines of thinking. In the art of making up and acting out stories, children create their own entry into the community of learners.

Further Readings: Paley, Vivian (1990). The boy who would be a helicopter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; Paley, Vivian (2004). A child’s work: The importance of fantasy play. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Vivian Paley