What can raise children’s educational attainment levels, boost their confidence, increase their communication skills, regulate their behaviour and enable them to operate socially in the world? The answer is playing with stories. The rich, creative domain of stories holds huge benefits for children who explore it, and can be a lot of fun too.
The hands-on exhibition, ‘A World Full of Stories’ was created by Playeum with two main objectives in mind: to feed children’s imaginations with inspiring stories from around the world and to encourage children to create their own, new stories.
As with all of Playeum’s hands-on exhibitions, the installations and activities for ‘A World Full of Stories’ are designed for children aged one to 12, and are interactive, open-ended and child-led. The result is a vibrant presentation of creative invention and a celebration of children’s amazing abilities to imagine and construct new narratives.
Why the Theme of Stories?
The theme of stories is huge. It encompasses the art-forms of illustration, role-play, drama, puppetry and mime, and includes the building blocks of stories: beginning, middle, end, and the classic story components: character, setting and plot. And critically, as a foundation to all of these elements, it employs the active use of the imagination. So there is a wonderful breadth of opportunities for children to explore stories in different ways and through different media, guaranteeing that the hands-on exhibition holds something for everyone.
There are also significant benefits for children who create and play with stories. In Play research, making up stories and role-playing is termed ‘Pretence/socio-dramatic play’, and in the words of University of Cambridge professor, David Whitebread, this well-researched type of play is highly beneficial:
‘High-quality pretend play has repeatedly been shown to be very closely associated with the development of cognitive, social and academic abilities. Studies have reported the impact of playworld experience on narrative skills in five to seven year olds, of pretence play on deductive reasoning and social competence, and of socio-dramatic play on improved ‘self-regulation’ among young children who are prone to be highly impulsive.’ David Whitebread, ‘The Importance of Play’, 2012
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Responding to this research, Playeum has created within the exhibition a number of different environments that encourage pretend play, and which also allow children to make up stories using art materials, recycled materials, puppetry, dressing up, drawing, writing, role-play and more.
Can Story-making Activities Work at Home?
With story books, imagination, encouragement, some art materials and an acceptance that your home space may occasionally become a bit messy, you can do some wonderful story-making activities with your child at home. Here are a few ideas to get you started.
Use Story Books
It seems obvious, but using children’s illustrated story books is a great starting point, particularly if you are not naturally inclined to self-initiate regular fantasy play with your child. Fiction story books feature talking plants and animals, imaginary environments, unexpected plots and often beautiful illustrations. Simply exposing your child to the world of story books is arguably an essential part of childhood and is guaranteed to exercise the imagination. Reading books together will open up a new world for your child which you can use as a starting point for fun and focused story-making.
Talk About the Stories
Discussion about the story doesn’t always need to come immediately after you’ve finished reading a book together, as that runs the risk of appearing to the child like a quiz or test. Instead, you could bring up the characters and plot at any time – while you’re travelling somewhere or during a meal.
I’m a believer in subverting the plot through such discussions, for example, “I was thinking about X’s decision to visit the desert in your book. I wonder what would have happened if she had chosen to go to the seaside instead?” This can lead to flights of fancy and interesting discussions, and it will be tacitly communicated to your child that they can take a story in any direction they wish.
Visualise the story through art-making
You can easily use known story books or new stories you and your child have made up together to create artwork. It’s another way of bringing stories to life prompting conversation, the imagination and further create play.
There are two easy ways to get going on this:
- Consider the characters, and
- Consider their journeys within the story.
You can facilitate this with your child with discussion about these areas, and then by providing materials and assistance when required for them to draw or paint the characters and their journey as they see these in their mind’s eye. This activity is helping them delve deeper into the story’s ‘world’ and characters, and you can talk about these elements as they draw and use colour.
You can also introduce play-doh or clay, inviting your child to create sculpted characters and environments in a three-dimensional context.
Use Objects to Tell Stories
Using objects lends a new and enjoyable way to retelling stories, and it can help with memory retention too. Studies have shown that 5-6 year-olds’ ability to retell a story is greatly enhanced by the use of objects such as sticks, paper cut-outs, etc. when used to represent the characters and events in a story. This leads to the story staying more deeply with the child, and it’s been shown that after the activity, they can then tell the story accurately without the use of objects.
You can find any number of objects around the home to represent characters, settings and the plot. Sometimes the objects can be abstract, e.g. a blue cloth to represent the sea, or a stick representing a character. It can be fun collecting objects with your child, taking their ideas and seeing where they lead to. Then you can encourage the retelling of the story with the objects which in turn can transform into a mini show, should your child be inclined to performance.
Play with Stories
Recent research shows a difference between children’s stories created under ‘taught’ conditions compared with children’s stories created under ‘play’ conditions. The stories that emerge through playing are more inventive and original, and the child is observed to be more confident during the process. The message here is clear – keep things playful when using stories in the home. Here are some ideas for this:
- Puppetry: You and your child can make puppets of the story’s characters and use them to act out the stories. You could also create a small puppet theatre out of card. There’s a lots of ideas online on how to create effective mini theatres.
- Small-world play: Set up ‘small-world play’ environment that represents a story world with known or new characters. Play with your child to create new stories or leave them to it: it’s a well-known form of independent play starting from as young as two years old.
- Role-play: again this can be independently initiated by your child, but if they need encouragement, set up environments which can form the setting for role-play. A classic is the ‘den’, using pushed together chairs and sheets, but you could also imagine together small islands in the shark-infested ocean, a volcanic landscape, a jungle or forest, etc. Using each other’s ideas as starting points, the role-play can lead anywhere and can then be further developed through the discussion/making/re-enacting activities described above.
- Fantasy play: For the more dramatically-inclined parents, stories can be made up on the spot, animating whatever is around you and capturing your child’s imagination in the process. The water glass and the salt could be at war with each other, only to make friends by the end (depending on the journey of the narrative). The toothbrush and toothpaste can have an eternally shifting relationship, and their characters can develop as time progresses. This form of story-making takes practice, but is highly effective. It is easily accepted by children and over time they join in with their own ideas and voices for the characters. And, with some prior reflection, it’s also a good way of exploring feelings and challenging situations, using the animated objects as the mouthpieces.
As with all play, the best you can provide for your child is the time, space and ‘permission’ to play freely, but these facilitated approaches can also result in high quality and creative time spent with your child, with lasting benefits.
Anna Salaman is the Executive Director of Playeum and Creative Director of ‘A World Full of Stories’.
‘A World Full of Stories’ runs from 15 November 2016 to 30 April 2017 at Playeum’s Children’s Centre for Creativity, Gillman Barracks. Drop in any time between Tuesday – Sunday, 10 am – 6 pm.
Join us at the exclusive preview of Playeum’s A World Full of Stories on 12 and 13 November 2016. Get your admission tickets exclusively at the Little Day Out Shop now.