Bedtime stories stimulate the ability to form mental images from words, an essential skill for reading. They also enhance a child’s verbal skills and promote social-emotional learning. When you tell bedtime stories, you’ll have a new dimension of shared experience with your child and convey your view of the world.
Telling stories isn’t a hard skill to learn. In this short article, we’ll show you the way to happy and satisfying conclusions. Your biggest supporter will be your audience, your child, who is flattered you took time to tell the story and who’ll forgive many mistakes. Besides, if your story isn’t all that exciting, you might just put your child to sleep.
If you need help with story ideas, use our “Story Starters“. These are single paragraphs that set up scenes, characters, and conflicts for bedtime stories. The Guides help parents make popular children’s movies an occasion for growth and development.
Elements of a Story:
When: The time can be the past, the present, or the future. Phrases such as “once upon a time”, “long, long ago”, and “not so long ago” are great for setting time.
Where: The location can be a specific place known to your child, or a type of place, such as a school, a store, a house, a mountain, a jungle, a farm, a desert, or even the sticky surface of a sweet dessert, the inside of someone’s body, the head of a pin, or the green cheese of the moon. The location can be a city, a country, “a place far, far away”, or “a place not so far away”.
Who: Characters can be people, animals, plants or physical objects. The protagonist is the character your child will want to succeed and with whom your child should be able to identify. Good protagonists are often your child’s age, or a few years older, and often of the same gender as your child. The protagonist should learn and grow during the story. The antagonist is the other side in the conflict. Nature or a set of circumstances can be the antagonist.
Conflict/Problem: Some plots include problems that many people have experienced which can be resolved with high-value qualities such as determination, hard work, honesty, perseverance, intelligence, ingenuity or faith. Conflicts to which children can relate include:
- Being lost or needing to find something;
- The necessity to accomplish a task;
- Saving an animal or a person in distress;
- Learning a new skill;
- Dealing with difficult people (bullies or scary neighbors);
- Surviving in a natural setting;
- Fixing something broken; and
- Moving to a new home or changing schools.
A story can address any problem children face or can imagine. A bully, for example, may become a mean-spirited animal or a roaring wind or a walking, talking mailbox. Fantasy situations which relate to core developmental issues can be found in fairy tales and classic children’s literature. See, for example, the list of developmental issues faced by Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz“.
Many good plots follow the classic pattern of the hero tales.
- We are introduced to a likable hero.
- Complications occur that require the hero to undertake a quest.
- On the quest, the hero encounters dangers and surmounts them, often with the help of a new friend or mentor who unexpectedly appears.
- The successful hero returns home with a valuable object, a new skill, or a realization about the meaning of life.
There are any number of variations to the basic hero plot. Dorothy’s quest to find her way home is one.
Hero stories and fairy tales often have a “sudden joyous turn”. This is the way J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the Lord of the Rings, described the magical intervention or sudden action by the hero that often saved the day when everything looked bleak. Again, the “The Wizard of Oz” follows this pattern.
Resolution: In order to build your child’s sense of security, the ending should be happy and unequivocal. Life is full of uncertainty, ambiguity, and unhappy endings, but young children are usually not ready for this reality. Moreover, bedtime stories or stories at any time are almost never the occasions to deal with those aspects of life.
Keep it Fun: Time spent telling stories should be fun and loving moments. Don’t try to be didactic and teach, except on the rarest occasion. Good lessons will come on their own through the stories you choose to create. Don’t concern yourself with building verbal skills, enhancing social-emotional learning, or teaching ethics. All of these will come to your child as a happy by-product of listening to stories.
Build In Distance: Tell stories about someone’s sister, rather than your child’s sister, and someone’s grandfather, rather than your child’s grandfather. Children love stories in which animals, plants, or inanimate objects take on human characteristics, and have no trouble identifying with those that have a few attributes similar to their own. However, this identification is tempered by the fundamental differences between your child and the character, enabling you to deal directly with a situation in which the emotions are too strong for a child to bear. Bambi, for example, can suffer his mother’s death in a way that would be too painful were the characters human.
Use your Imagination and Build One Story on Another: Give free reign to your creative impulses and you’ll find that stories can be inspired by virtually any object, event, animal or person. Feel free to build your story on top of another story you’ve told in days past, a book, a television program or a movie. Base several stories on one set of characters placed in different situations. (When your story is derived from a television program, a film, or an illustrated book, add new characters and describe situations that are not shown on the screen. In this way, your child’s imagination will expand beyond what he or she has already seen.)
Provide Interesting Detail and Strong Characterization: As you develop the story, build pictures with your words using details that make a vivid impression. This applies to scenery, action, and characters. Also, be sure to give insights to the motivations of the characters, but do not describe them outright. Let your child make the logical jump.
When You Really Get Going, Use Archetypical Symbols: As your plot weaves, you may consider incorporating archetypes: another element of reading comprehension that your children will find in school. Certain objects or situations are imbued with extra meaning, even for young children, and serve to enrich your stories in terms of both idea and art. They include:
- The forest, woods or swamps — places that are scary and harbor hidden danger;
- Caves or holes — scary places with an element of womb imagery;
- Waterways — often representing life, continuity;
- Circles — hinting at the continuity of life and the cycles of nature;
- Rain — usually representing fertility;
- Light, shafts of light — showing hope, warmth, the promise of goodness;
- Witches, warlocks, goblins — serving as symbols of evil;
- Trees — offering safe harbor;
There is no need to explain the meaning or import of your story or the use of the archetypes; just let the child enjoy the mystery of the images.
Be prepared for the following:
Your listener may ask questions, correct your assertions, or take over and tell you the story. Allow this; it means you’ve reached your audience. Your child’s use of imagination and words to add or to criticize is even better developmental exercise than listening to the story. Have meaningful conversations about your child’s suggestions. Play with what he or she says; react to it and change the story.
Your listener may not like the story and ask you to tell another one. Don’t be offended. Listen to what your child has to say and start over.
Now you’re ready to begin your journey. Take the plunge, you’ll find your way to your story’s conclusion. If you need help with ideas for your stories use our “Story Starters“, are single paragraphs which, in a few words, set the time, place, characters and conflict for many bedtime (or any time) stories. TeachWithMovies.org also gives you access to Guides for Talking and Playing for Growth designed to help parents make popular children’s movies an occasion for growth and development.
Further reading: The book that inspired this article and from which many of the concepts were taken (including the Tolkien quote) is Tell Me A Story: Shaping Your Child’s Future Through Bedtime Stories, by Chase Collins. We highly recommend this book.
Conclusion: Telling imaginative bedtime (or any time) stories to your child is a skill you can easily master. Stories will enhance your child’s verbal development and social-emotional learning. They will foster your child’s ability to form mental images from words, an essential skill for learning to read. Stories will bring you and your child closer together and provide an opportunity to communicate your ethical values in a way that is fun and entertaining.