How to Tell a Story to Kids

by Melissa Jaramillo

Story DayIf you've ever been around a child, you've probably heard, "Tell me a story!" Who could resist that request?

Children are wide open to the magic of storytelling like a blossom opens to the sun. A well-told story entertains and educates. It can cut across age barriers and its listeners absorb the tale and its lessons.

Master Native American storyteller, Dayton Edmonds, has enthralled audiences ranging from preschoolers to elders with tales passed down through the generations. He brings folklore like, "The Gift of Rabbit" and "Coyote and Plum" to life with hand gestures, various voices, illusion and props.

One of my kids, who listened to these stories says, "He uses his voice to draw people in and his hands as if he were the main character. I think his stories really stick because he can exaggerate things without you catching on at first."

Dayton uses storytelling, puppetry, clowning, positive imaging and other skills to teach sensitivity and awareness. He also views it as an opportunity to teach about Native American culture. Dayton says, "My purpose is to tell the story; to pass it on so that others may hear, see, feel and enjoy."

Master storytellers are blessed with flair. They might have a natural talent, but they work hard to fine-tune the skills and methods that draw listeners into their tale.

You can learn how to tell stories with the power to transport a child to worlds beyond their own, too. You don't have to have a huge audience -- your own kids will do.

Storytelling Basics

Are you ready to move from a beginner with a tale ripe for sharing to a seasoned and successful storyteller? Start with these steps.

Choose a tale. Traditionally, storytellers gleaned their tales by listening. You're more likely to find your inspiration at the library than around a story circle.

Choose a favorite book, folk tale or fable that "touches" you. Take your time as you browse through all the droll and humorous, traditional fairy, tall tales, myths, and modern stories. You can always share an anecdote from your life.

A good story has a clearly defined single theme, a well-developed plot and characters your listeners can relate to. You'll be able to add vivid word pictures, sounds and rhythm as you share the adventure. Your story should end with a moral or lesson for your listeners to take with them.

Know your audience. You have a message for your listeners and a tale to tell. As you learn more about your audience, you can adjust your presentation so they understand the story and hear the message. The audience can be your own kids, it doesn't have to get complicated.

Get ready to share. Read through your story several times until you're comfortable with the flow and meaning.

  • Research the tale's background and cultural meanings. If it is a story from your own life, that step won't be necessary.
  • Decide which mood you want to create and the word pictures you want your listeners to "see."
  • Allow the characters and setting to become real and tangible.
  • Visualize it! Imagine sounds, tastes, scents and colors.

Know the story. Map out a basic story line. The beginning sets the stage and introduces the characters and conflict. Within the body, the conflict builds up to the climax. The end shows the resolution of the conflict. Master storytellers say that you shouldn't memorize the whole story, but that you should know your first and last lines by heart.

You can retain the original flavor and vigor of a story by noting the phrases which repeat throughout the work. Include those phrases, unusual words and expressions as you share the tale.

Practice telling it -- to your mirror, friends, the cat and anyone who will listen. Use your imagination to make the story come alive as you prepare.

Giving Your Story Life

Once you have the basic structure, you can add the glitter and substance to your scene and characters. Here are some of my suggestions.

Bring your story to your audience -- literally. You might need to rearrange a room to bring the kids closer, or use a backdrop or hangings to create atmosphere.

Keep your tale short and simple, especially when you're sharing with younger children. If you're speaking to an group of mixed ages, aim your story at the younger ones.

Describe the characters and settings. Paint word pictures such as, "the little girl with flowing golden hair and eyes as green as the river." Exaggeration can wow your audience!

Help the listeners sympathize with the character's feelings. Tell with words and show with actions and expressions how he or she feels. If a character in the story is sad, frown or wipe away the tears. If a character is happy, a smile and raised eyebrows would work.

Give the characters different voices. Change voices to match each character. The mouse might have a squeaky, high voice. Use your voice to set the mood. A scary part could be told in a quiet, low voice that gradually get louder as the excitement builds and suddenly drop it to a whisper.

Use vivid word pictures so your listeners can smell, touch, hear and see the story. For example, instead of "the horses ran past," say "the horses pounded across the land, their dark manes and tails giving shape to the wind."

Use traditional clues for the beginning or end of the story. Once upon a time works just as well as a tale that starts out with, "A long time ago, when the earth was set down..."

Once you finish the story, stop! Allow your listeners to think about the story and draw their own meaning from the tale.

Whether it's your own kids or a group you teach storytelling sets minds in motion. How do you do it?