Why can props be important in storytelling for young children?

Bushman story telling
Bushman story telling

Some  storytellers use no props at all; they use only the combination of their voice, their delivery, the story itself and the imagination of the audience, and that is the way story telling has been done since time immemorial.  And as Jonathan Gottschall said in his wonderful book, ‘The storytelling animal: how stories make us human’, this sort of storytelling can be quite sexy ( see the admiring gaze of the young woman to the left of the story teller)!

However, in the context of early childhood education, as opposed to being told a story in the arms of one’s loving parent, there are good reasons to add props of some sort.  Key protagonists in the story can be triggers to a child’s memory of the sequence and pattern of a story. ‘Oh yes, then there was the man with the bundle of straw’.

(Maybe if I had had props, I might have stayed on topic…. my apologies in advance, for meandering.)

Often, in my experience, a centre may have a small kete with the laminated characters of a story – Mrs Wishy-Washy, the tub, the animals, etc. – and if the children are lucky they have access to these at times other than mat times. The children will often play the role of ‘teacher’ and tell the story to other children, while manipulating the plastic pieces. Often this is a performance rather than as something that pleases a child to play with on their own.

I prefer to have three dimensional objects, ideally of a natural material, as well as aesthetically pleasing and texturally satisfying to hold. Why?

They offer the equivalent benefits as a basket of items for heuristic play. Sensory stimulation, and appreciation for the shape, feel, warmth, weight, balance, colour and texture of a ‘prop’.

After telling a story a  number of times, using these props, I like to make the items available on the story table or nature table. Here, inviting fabrics, loose parts such as stones, shells and crystals, as well as the story characters, invite the children to retell the story in their own way. Story telling and play are first cousins.

an invitation to play/ tell a story
an invitation to play/ tell a story

New characters, places, events, and memories from home can be seamlessly woven into a simple plot through the medium of the child’s imagination. The laminated ‘set’ allows for no extra characters such as a dirty and uncooperative Mr Wishy Washy, or another ten  animals, or a dinosaur. Such additions can add complexity to the plot, requiring imaginative problem solving.

More than one child can play at the same time. A story can be co-created, collaboratively rescripted. Again, this reminds of how older children often engage in dramatic play, with much discussion of how many Mummies there can be in a story or whether or not the baby can talk. 004

Having a small flower arrangement which is lovingly and visibly refreshed by a caring teacher adds the message that these things are precious and loved. This nature story table usually reflects the seasonal changes and includes small treasures from nature. Such a culture of care and respect for the various less robust props is something that can be achieved primarily by modelling from the teachers.PA120115

In mainstream centres, my practice has been to combine the nature table with the story table. Driftwood can create a fantasy landscape, along with other loose parts. Ideally a centre will have enough ‘people’, ( who can stand freely), enough loose parts, and enough beautiful fabrics for children to create their own stories as well as recreate ones they have been hearing ( more than once). I am reminded of the adult teachers at a story telling workshop who, when invited to find props for telling a story, wandered happily around the room with a basket, to all intents and purposes as absorbed as if it was ‘retail therapy’ with someone else’s credit card! In much the same way, children need choice and the ability to select and create.

Too often, it seems that teachers have the idea that 50 people. or 30 dinosaurs or 40 cars will be ideal for playing. Far from it. Usually a diverse selection of characters will appear in a story, each with their own different agenda, and this is often hard to find. I think it has to do with a slightly OCD attention to tidy storage. It reminds me of Diti Hill’s comment that ‘children do not live their lives in curriculum fragments’ and equally, stories are not conveniently told with large quantities of similar characters, selected by the teacher.001

Three boys, previously preoccupied with shoving all the blocks off the table onto the grass, became involved alongside me in a story about hospitals and car accidents. Three small blocks in the ice cream box, on its side, became a hospital bed. The tip up truck became the ambulance, the woman with the missing foot was rushed off to hospital, and the woman’s son raced after him on his motorbike. The three boys added dialogue, sound effects, their own ideas, solutions to problems, unexpected changes in the plot and a stream of language – oral literacy, fine motor skills, and cooperative social skills, here we come!

Although an observer might consider that I was ‘just playing’ (and I was playing!)  I would call this ‘teaching’ – scaffolding, modelling, allowing, inviting and generally adding one more brick to the wall of a story telling culture.