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Oral storytelling is a tradition that has all but died out in modern life. But it is one that a Scottish charity is doing its best to revive. Children First’s storytelling development project aims to enable staff to acquire storytelling skills and to integrate storytelling into their work with vulnerable children. The project also works with parents and teachers so that storytelling can be used at home or in schools.

The idea for the project grew out of development worker Claire McNichol’s previous job in family-finding. She discovered that storytelling was a powerful tool for helping children to come to terms with multiple separation, and wanted to exploit its potential to help children deal with all kinds of distressing and traumatic experiences.

Ruth Kirkpatrick, also a development worker at the project, says that one of the strengths of storytelling is that it can allow children to express feelings through a third person without talking directly about themselves. She talks about one little boy she worked with whose parents had been using heroin heavily: “His father had killed himself and the child wasn’t living with his mother anymore. I started telling him the story of Tom Thumb. I was telling him that once there was a woman who wanted a child more than anything, and he butted in: ‘I bet when she got him she didn’t want him’.

“Children aren’t always able to say how they feel. Stories can be a way of giving hope to children who have very harsh things to deal with in their lives. You can’t build resilience in children without giving them hope.”

The project also uses storytelling with families as a way of strengthening relationships between parents and children. Kirkpatrick finds that storytelling attracts hard-to-reach families who wouldn’t come to a parenting group. “If we offer a group based around storytelling we can tackle a lot of parenting issues,” she says. “We talk to parents about stories and rhymes and how they can use them to get through difficult parts of the day. For example, we talk to them about making up stories at bedtime or telling the story of the child’s day.”

And for parents who don’t read, the project aims to build confidence by encouraging them to focus on traditional oral storytelling. “I’ve had mums who’ve said ‘my child doesn’t like to sit on my lap’ and by the end of the week the child is sitting on their lap, they’re making eye contact and they’re joining in rhymes and songs together,” says Kirkpatrick.

She adds: “There’s a different energy in telling [rather than reading] stories. The eye contact and the physical presence of the teller make a difference. It creates a bond between the storyteller and the listeners. People feel they’ve got to know you well if you tell them a story.”

The project also provides storytelling training for teachers. Jan McClure, assistant director at Children First, says: “We wanted to find a way of engaging with children who are not directly using our services, and there was a lot of interest in the project from schools. Storytelling works well with children with very challenging behaviour. Teachers find they can use stories in circle time to discuss change and relationships in the class.”

The project staff also work directly in schools, sometimes with one class over several weeks. McClure says: “We might choose an ancient legend that seems particularly relevant for the children. The children work in different groups on some aspect of the story, creating puppets and models and maybe a musical accompaniment.” As well as improving children’s listening and speaking skills, the approach can be useful in helping children who are marginalised within a class to become more self-confident. McClure says: “Sometimes children who are usually silent will speak up in a storytelling session. We’ve found that autistic children, for whom the playground is a nightmare, can communicate in a way that is listened to by the other children. Children can be remarkably generous.”

Lessons learned

  • Storytelling stimulates emotional growth as well as developing children’s confidence and their listening and speaking skills. “Stories encourage children’s growth in all kinds of ways. Through creating their own stories, children can articulate their emotions, sometimes through the voice of a third person,” says Children First development worker Claire McNichol. 
  • Storytelling promotes warm relationships between adults and children. “We work with parents on their storytelling skills so they can use them to strengthen their relationships with their own children,” says McNichol. 
  • The approach also works well in schools with whole classes. Ruth Kirkpatrick, another development worker at the project, says, “There’s a kind of ‘magic glue’ effect. Through listening to each other, a class can come together as a group. Because there’s no right or wrong answer, children who struggle with their school work often shine in storytelling.”

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