Happily ever after? Storytelling in Froebelian settings

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“The tiny creature smiled – then closed his eyes and fell sound asleep”. The listening children paused, and as if one, burst into spontaneous applause – such was the power of the story. And all was well…

Or was it?

Was there a happily-ever-after-ending – not to the story, but to the storytelling session?

Story-telling is, of course, an age-old practice: immediate, enjoyable, stimulating, bringing to its listeners a second-hand range of experiences, evoking a variety of emotions, and stimulating imagination. But is it a learning tool – a way of supporting emergent language and literacy? And if it is, is it delivered in an effective, robust manner? All too often – for a variety of reasons – story telling in Early Year settings is used as a way of occupying and controlling large groups, and fails to maximise its huge potential. Failing to utilise spontaneous learning situations is, to me, a grave fault. In the demanding and fast life of the 21st century an unhurried diet of interactions is desirable.

Practitioners adopting a Froebelian Approach use storytelling in the same way they ‘use’ Froebel’s principles in other aspects of their practice.

Friedrich Froebel was a German educator born nearly 240 years ago, and is commonly accepted as the ‘father of kindergarten’. His influence is felt throughout almost all modern nurseries and Early Year settings across the world. (Malaguzzi, Montessori and Steiner all have their foundations based on Froebel’s ideas). A Froebelian way of operating is not a method but an approach – and one that regards children as unique, competent and capable.

Froebelians consider that children learn best when interested and excited by their own exploration and discovery…supported by well qualified and experienced adults. Hence an Early Years setting following this approach will be found to have children engrossed in play, and following their own interests.

So, when it comes to storytelling it may well be incidental and unplanned. Staff will have a mental repertoire of known traditional fairy tales, and access to diverse books. Children also will have ready access to many books, and in time honoured tradition there may be only two participants – a story teller and a listener, or perhaps a story teller and a small group of children. The thinking behind this intimate small group interaction is that children have the opportunity to respond, to question and suggest, giving therefore ‘practice’ in communication. A further advantage to these small groups is that practitioners can introduce new vocabulary in an attractive way. Games can be played – pass the story is very popular in our setting. Someone starts a story and passes it to a volunteer to continue.  At other times new endings are suggested for well known and loved stories. These ending may be frivolous or sensible – but either way conversation and debate is started.

Sometimes the location of the story telling influences the content. Walking by the river may evoke stories about nature, or a fairy kingdom; sitting round a campfire may take on an eerie content; relaxing in the home corner might encourage ‘the adventures of…’. A Froebelian practitioner will be adept at asking open-ended questions, and skilled at giving a child time to think and ponder.

For those who do not feel confident in story telling it is worth remembering that children are eager – and forgiving. If you can voice your words in a strong manner, altering your volume and tone you are half-way there! No-one likes to listen to a monotonous monologue! Equally confidence can be gained by utilising props.

Story telling is inextricably linked to role play and drama, and to symbolic play. Practitioners can harness children’s stories and offer to write them down. When a child understands their creations are valued, their self-esteem rises and success breeds success! It is very satisfying for a child to see their book on a shelf with others.

Props such as puppets, finger puppets or dolls can be introduced to ‘tell’ the story or to enhance its telling. Children accustomed to hearing rich storytelling often take a leap from a specific prop to a symbolic one, thus reinforcing the idea of an object representing another, and indeed a mark representing a letter or word. Story listeners and creators develop in to authors.

Another principle Froebelians adhere to is the interconnectedness and unity of experiences. Storytelling, embraced through a Froebelian lens, in the warmth of strong and loving relationships, illustrates this admirably.

For those wishing to learn more the following easy-to-read publications offer insight and knowledge:

Bruce, T., McNair, L., & Whinnett, J. (Eds.). (2020). Putting Storytelling at the Heart of Early Childhood Practice: A Reflective Guide for Early Years Practitioners (1st ed.). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429283369

BLOG BY ALISON HAWKINS (on Twitter @AlisonH43353781)

Photo: copyright Donald Judge https://www.flickr.com/photos/donaldjudge/9591620518