T hink back to a moment when your mother or father, or maybe a loving grandparent or teacher, told you a story. Do you remember it? What feelings do you associate with it?
If you're like most people, you will recall those moments with evident fondness. Why? The story itself probably had little to do with it. More likely, it was the love and attention that poured out from that caring adult that helped you feel safe and warm.
We are local teachers and the authors of "How to Tell Stories to Children." Our goal is to help parents connect face-to-face with kids using a simple method humans have had for years: storytelling. Our work has been endorsed by Dr. Jane Goodall, Charles Eisenstein, Steve Biddulph and one of New Mexico's greatest storytellers, Joe Hayes.
When news of the pandemic first hit Taos, we reached out to storytellers across the globe to collect stories that have brought healing to parents and children at home. The response was incredible, and several of those stories have now been translated into multiple languages.
We especially liked a story called "Caty the Caterpillar," which comes from a mother of four in rural Maine. We created an activity to go with that story, then shared it with our own students in Taos (see below). It's ideal for ages 3-8.
"Caty the Caterpillar"
"Hey Caty, what does a caterpillar do on New Year's Day?"
"I don't know, Carter," Caty sighed.
"He turns over a new leaf!" ...
One by one, every caterpillar heard the voice inside, directing them to hang upside-down from a branch, and begin the work of building a shelter around themselves. The caterpillars did not fully understand why they were being called to do this, or for how long …
"Hey Caty," Carter yelled from inside his cocoon, "What are caterpillars most afraid of?"
"I don't know, Carter."
Many changes happened during the time inside, as hours turned into days and days turned into weeks. And just when it seemed that the darkness would become their new way of life, that warm glow of light within each living thing called out again for something new.
Due to space constraints, we can only reprint snippets of the story here, but you can find it all at howtotellstoriestochildren.com/blog2/caty-the-caterpillar.
Turning a story into an activity
If you've ever heard your child playing their favorite characters from movies, you'll understand why storytelling is so compelling. It stimulates the imagination and fosters play. The following activity will help your child do just that.
1. Read the story aloud with your child.
2. Invite them to be a wriggling caterpillar. Be sure to eat plenty and grow fat (they can stuff pillows in their shirt, etc.).
3. When it's time, ask them to build a chrysalis (couch cushions, sheets, etc.) and go to sleep.
4. When they're ready, they get to come out as a butterfly and see the earth with new eyes. Ask them what has changed - both inside and out?
5. Next, invite your child to draw themselves as a caterpillar, then separately as a butterfly, and write a few sentences about what has changed - both inside and out.
We did this with some of our students at home, then asked parents to make copies of the drawings. Each child got to address envelopes, place stamps and mail their work to friends. A few days later, the children received several letters in the mail from friends they hadn't seen for a while.
(We have more stories on our website from storytellers all over the planet. We also invite you and your children to submit your own original stories and help bring a little fun and healing into the lives of others. Visit howtotellstoriestochildren.com.)
The science of storytelling - why it works
For years, scientists have been piecing together facts about storytelling: it helps a child remember information, focus attention, develop empathy and navigate difficult life events. But it's only recently that a handful of psychologists, evolutionary theorists and neuroscientists have started to put together a comprehensive picture. Storytelling is a cognitive tool.
"As you hear a story unfold," writes Elena Renken on npr.org, "your brain waves actually start to synchronize with those of the storyteller." In other words, stories help us create common ground. Renken is referring to the work of Uri Hasson, a professor of neuroscience at Princeton University whose TED Talk on storytelling is worth the time.
When we hear the word storytelling, most of us still think of the story. What we're learning is that the relationship between speaker and listener is perhaps more important - meaning you and your child. "What you have to do is get into the heart," says Jane Goodall. "And how do you get into the heart? With stories."