Ministry  Home

Then we'll begin 

Story telling to groups of under 5's

 

 

I am not a natural story teller, outgoing, gregarious, prone to the dramatic, but I have learnt some basic techniques which make a story more interesting to the listener.

This article is taken from "In your hands" an (as yet) unpublished book I have written about running toddler groups. As such, references are made to toddler groups but the principles apply equally in Sunday School or any other situation where you need to tell a story.

Story telling

I was once asked to read quite a long portion from the Bible of the story of Joseph for a Sunday morning service. Afterwards someone who had heard the story hundreds of times before came up to me and said how much they had enjoyed listening because I had made it come alive as I had read it. I donít tell you this to say what a wonderful story teller I am, but I tell you for this reason: I am not a natural story teller, outgoing, gregarious, prone to the dramatic, but I have learnt some basic techniques which make a story more interesting to the listener. If you are one of those people who feel that telling stories is hard, try following the suggested techniques in this article and you can improve the way you tell your stories. Many apply equally to adults before whom you may find yourself sat, story in hand, as they do to children. Adults may sit politely even when bored but children will certainly let you know if you donít have their attention. There is an art to story telling, but it can be learnt!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Be sure you can make eye contact with those who are listening.

Then we'll begin

Make sure that you, the story teller, are comfortable and can be seen by those you are talking to. In a toddler group there is no reason why you should not be on a chair even if the children are sat on the floor. In fact if you have things for them to look at you may need to be on a chair if you have more than four or five children around you.

Are the children ready for the story? Put away any toys that may have been out and ask the children to come and sit before you. You may even find it an advantage to put out a Ďstory matí, something like a picnic blanket, so the children know this is the time that we are gathered together and we listen to the person at the front.

Can everyone hear you? You may need to ask the children to be quiet and listen a few times but as you set a protocol the children will soon know this is what we do for story time: sit and be quiet. If there are adults present in your situation you may even need to ask them to be quiet as they may be in the thick of conversation. Decide before you start your group whether you expect the adults to listen equally, so asking them to come and sit down for the story too, or if they can move away and chat in the background. Whatever you choose, make sure that you speak loudly enough so that those at the back of the circle can hear you.

Be sure you can make eye contact with those who are listening. Even if you are reading, look up frequently and make eye contact with someone each time.

The way you use your voice will change the way a story is received.

Using your voice

The way you use your voice will change the way a story is received. Vary the speed you speak at. If something exciting is happening speak more quickly and in a higher pitched voice. If something is sad or slow moving, speak more slowly for those few words. Emphasise individual words like a hu-u-u-ge Ark, a lo-o-o-ng journey. Labour over things that take a little time like the woman trying to touch Jesus clothes to be healed. If she could just..., if she could only.... someone pushed her back, if she could stre-etch just a little further she could reach him. Obviously you can only do things like this last example if you are free to do so, ie not reading from the Bible. Even if you are reading from another book there is no reason why you canít vary a little from the text if you think it will enhance the telling.

You can illustrate your story with other sounds too, like snoring, sniffing etc. You can further emphasise points with strategic pauses. These draw attention to what is to follow and create suspense.

One word of warning, donít ask questions which will draw you into conversations and away from your story as this has the opposite effect of maintaining control.  

Maintaining control whilst telling the story

I have already mentioned eye contact as being an important way to keep the listeners attention, but there are many other ways to draw in the distracted child. If you have pictures or some other visual illustration ask the distracted child, or group in general, if they can see particular things in the pictures. (Our story today is about Jesus, which person in the picture do you think could be Jesus?) Put a direct question to a child whoís attention is wandering (A lot of people came to listen to Jesus, didnít they Katie?) The child with drifting thoughts or actions can be drawn back by helping them to identify with the story. (I think Noah must have been good at building. You like building things donít you Steven?) One word of warning, donít ask questions which will draw you into conversations and away from your story as this has the opposite effect of maintaining control.

You may have one child who answers all of the questions you ask without letting the others have a go. If this happens, thank them for their contribution and ask them to let others have a turn to speak, then address following questions to specific people or groups (like the girls/boys, or the little ones etc.)

Get the children to mime parts of the story like pulling in the fishing net, blowing like the wind, or collecting the manna from the ground.

You need to be prepared to include these things in your story telling to children. Work out before hand what you are going to say and ask them to do.

Fill your stories with the sights. sounds, smells and actions that you might think are just fillers but are the things of discovery for the young.  

Preparing a specific story

You know how it is when you do some DIY painting there are all those instructions on the tin about preparing the area properly before you start? And you know how most people ignore them to a greater or lesser extent? Here are the preparation instructions for telling stories to groups!  Good results which stay in the mind longer begin with good preparation.

Get hold of the story and read it through. Note especially the details of those you think you know wellóthere is no donkey mentioned for Mary to ride to Bethlehem.

Put yourself in the scene as a toddler. What can you see, smell, hear? What do you feel? Who is there? Toddlers notice things that adults donít.

Before my oldest child could walk (so was always in a push chair when I walked anywhere) I took a neighbours child for a walk into the town we lived in. It took so much longer than I had envisioned even though I knew he would walk slowly and want to rest a lot. This was because of all the things he wanted to poke and do. I had never noticed the lamp post but he wanted to squeeze between the lamp post and the wall-what fun! Now I have been through that stage with my own children and I am more wary of up and coming distractions from our progress. Now I whisk them past all the interesting things in life in the name of progress and then try to think of things to fill their time!

Children are interested in the details. They have never felt the stone work on a Bible times house or watched Jeremiahís potter at work. They have never watched their mother grind her own wheat into flour or gutted a fish ready for breakfast with Jesus on the beach. Fill your stories with the sights. sounds, smells and actions that you might think are just fillers but are the things of discovery for the young.

Having said that donít make your story too long as the listeners will soon lose interest. Another point is, donít use vocabulary that they do not understand: use four shorter words where one longer one will do!

Do you need an introduction going over what went on last time? What does the story lead into next or next week?

Practice your story telling. If you are not confident then find someone to practice it to. Will your own children listen or do you need to borrow some? Will an adult friend or neighbour be better as they can offer you some advice about the good and bad points of your presentation? You could even try recording yourself and then listening back!

Many of these things apply to reading a story as well as telling your own. You add the life and colour by your mannerisms, voice tones and facial expressions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

God clearly put [these stories] in the Bible for our reading and benefit and I donít think it is ever too early to deal with them.

  Equally I donít think we need to labour points of violence where that is not the point of the story you are trying to put across.

 

 

Talking about war, killing and death in the Bible

I will come right out with it and say that I am one of those parents that doesnít let my children play with guns or make up games with killing and fighting. I know that many other parents feel the same way which has always left a slightly sticky problem of all that murder, killing and war in the Bible.

I have never tried to hide the stories of nasty things that have gone on in the world but have explained, as I thought they could understand, why people have acted the way they have. But I have never understood myself all the reasons why God allowed so many to be slaughtered as the Israelites made their way into the Promised Land, for example, and that is hard to explain. I do tell the stories in the Bible though. God clearly put them in the Bible for our reading and benefit and I donít think it is ever too early to deal with them. Nor do I think it is wise to offer a cuddly fluffy God that isnít tough enough to deal with the nasty things in life. God is a God of justice as well as a God of love and children know about these things. Equally I donít think we need to labour points of violence where that is not the point of the story you are trying to put across. Where Gideon takes only 300 solders to attack the Midianites, the point is that we can depend on God, not that the Israelites caused many to lose their lives. I know I have just been telling you to include the sights, smells and feelings of the situation but be sensible!

Every time I get to planning who does what during the spring term I always seem to lack volunteers to tell the Good Friday story. The point of the story is death and no one wants to tell it. In my toddler group programme I have divided it from the Sunday resurrection because there are so many important points to be covered and little ones canít sit still for such a long story. My toddler groups purposes have been to tell the gospel and there is no opportunity like Easter to answer some of those seasonal questions parents may have through your telling of the events of two thousand years ago.

A brief outline of what I say goes something like this. I begin by telling them that today we are going to have what seems like a sad story but it has such a great ending that we are going to hear all about next week. I tell them about there having been some leaders who were so frightened of Jesus that they wanted to get rid of him by killing him which they did on a cross. It seemed best and they thought they were doing the right thing. But God was in charge and he had a plan and it was all going to be all right. Some of the grown ups might want to find out more about Godís special plan and I will be happy to talk to them about it. After Jesus was dead a friend took his body and put it in a cave and it was going to be safe there but you know what? Something really strange happened and next week we are going to find out about the wonderful thing that happened to Jesus.

I fill it out a bit and I have pictures (including the crucifixion but mostly of the garden tomb scenes) but I never leave the story on a low note. It is all going to be all right. Build up the excitement ready for the most exciting story of all time next week!

Illustrating your story

If you are a great story teller you may get away with just speaking and not having anything for the children to look at or do but I think you are probably a rarity. Children these days are so used to the visual coming at them all the time that although they enjoy stories they can lose concentration very easily.

The easiest way to illustrate your stories is to read them from a book with pictures that you can show the children.

Pictures in books

The easiest way to illustrate your stories is to read them from a book with pictures that you can show the children. There are so many great books available these days that you shouldnít have any problem finding a copy of the more popular stories written for this age group.

If you can, read the story upside down so that the children can see the pictures all the time but it is better to turn the book round for reading if you canít tell the story well this way. Even if you are not reading the exact words in the book (perhaps it does not make the precise point you want to make) you can still use the pictures if you want to.

Hand puppets

Many people are discovering the wonderful world of using puppets. Some people have whole ministries through this medium and puppets have such a great effect of breaking down barriers. My children's nursery teacher told me recently that she had a child who would not speak to her for nearly a school termóuntil she brought a puppet which broke gridlock. First the child whispered to the puppet and then started speaking to the teacher within minutes.

Puppets come in all sorts of shapes and sizes from animals and birds to people. If you have one appropriate to the story why not use that. You donít need to be able to do appropriate animal noises or strange voicesóget the puppet to speak only in your ear and tell the children what it said.

 

Using modern everyday objects like this can anchor the stories of old in the modern day. 

Other props

Once I was asked to tell a story where people were in a boat. I got a huge cardboard box, taped a thick tube in one corner for a mast and used a tea towel for a sail. I asked the children to take it in turns to sit in my boat while I told the story.

I am sure you can think of ways that you could build similar scenes. For the story of Mary and Martha why not bring along a dustpan and brush, a wooden spoon and mixing bowl etc. For a story of healing people who have been lain on a bed or mat bring along a blanket to lie on. A minister friend of mine brought along his duvet and pillow for the story of God calling the boy Samuel.

Using modern everyday objects like this can anchor the stories of old in the modern day. These people were just like you and me and God made a difference to their lives.

 

Colouring pictures

If you canít manage the real thing then why not draw a few simple pictures for people to colour. Again for the story of Mary and Martha draw a brush, a cup, a rolling pin etc. You really donít need drawing skills to draw an approximation to these objects and I have found that children find almost any picture acceptable once you tell them what it is supposed to be!

If you really donít want to try then three sources of drawings are very cheap childrenís colouring books which often have everyday objects, boats, trees, flowers, girls, boys etc in them. Secondly, you can use clip art if you have a computer available to youólearn how to use it if you donít already know. It is a wonderful tool for childrenís work. A third source which I also use myself is specialist Christian clip art books available from your local Christian bookshop. The artistry is superb and with the use of a photocopier you can , put together great biblical scenes.

Paper puppets on straws

You can also use the above mentioned clip art books for making little puppets for the children to hold. I never have a shortage of volunteers whenever I produce these as they just love to hold something and be involved in the story telling. Copy the picture, cut it out, colour it in if you have time and use sticky tape to attach them to a drinking straw. If you have more children than characters in the story you could produce lots of stars for a night time scene or fish for the sea or flowers for a story on the hillside. Then everyone will have something to hold.

Other visual aids

I wouldnít be surprised if you had guessed that I like making things. As a consequence I have a further few resources tucked away that I use for story telling. All of them can be bought commercially for a fair few pounds but I have made them to a perfectly adequate standard and you could too as they are very simple.

Magnetic boards

Actually itís not the board that is magnetic but the pictures. The boards are usually backed with wood and have sheet metal on the front. You can now buy metallic paint that will attract magnets strongly enough to use for attaching pictures to the board. I have never tried the paint but it seems an easy way to go if the manufacturers claims are true as it would greatly reduce the weight of the board.

Stick pieces of magnet to the back of your pictures. Scenery, rocks trees, insides of houses, and of course the characters in the story can all be made magnetic with magnetic tape. With little effort great scenes can be made on the boards. Just touch the pieces in place and they stay. As the story progresses the pieces can be easily moved about. Magnetic tape can be bought from good art supply shops so you can easily make all the pieces you need.

Children love playing fuzzy felt and this is a glorified version.

Flannel graph

Children love playing fuzzy felt and this is a glorified version. Different scales of scenes can be bought commercially which are produced in America but available here. I have spent a lot of time making mine but I think that I can now tell just about any story from the Bible with the pieces that I have and I think you would be surprised how few pieces that is. They are not elaborate designs as the printed pieces are, but more than adequate for the job in hand. I have a strict rule that none of the children touch the pieces or there would be a riot of elbows as everyone tried to join in, such is itís popularity! I have deliberately made a small sized set for telling stories to small groups but if your toddler group is large you may need a bigger set.

My home made board is a piece of very thick cardboard covered on one side with pale brown felt for indoor or desert scenes and the other side is blue and green for sky and grass or up the other way shore and sea. The characters are cut out pieces of felt glued together in fairly intricate shapes and were, to be honest, quite fiddly to make but I only made the pieces I needed for telling ďtodayísĒ story. As time went on, I needed to make fewer new pieces as some from the previous times were appropriate. I almost never make new pieces now out of necessity, but occasionally do because I enjoy it.

 

 

Please donít be discouraged if you donít have unique ideas popping into your head. This article is to place ideas within your grasp: to teach you and set you going and there is more than enough here for that.

Balsa wood scenes

I have only set about making this piece of equipment in the last couple of years after seeing a lady use an ancient one that I thought was great. To be honest it is so simple to make that almost anyone can do it for minimal cost. The picture pieces are easy enough to make that I donít even bother keeping them from one time to another (I canít keep absolutely everything, although my husband and I try!) Photocopied pictures or hand drawn ones are stuck with sticky tape to garden wire and then pushed into the balsa wood as you tell the story. Simple!

I made a box to fit the size of the balsa wood length, breadth and thickness. The lid hinges to stop perpendicular to the base to lean ďsceneryĒ against.

Ideas unlimited

You may have other ideas or tools to help you put across the story. Some of the mums at a toddler group used to make the most elaborate working models out of cardboard. The only limit to the ideas is the inspiration of God!

Please donít be discouraged if you donít have unique ideas popping into your head. This article is to place ideas within your grasp: to teach you and set you going and there is more than enough here for that. I just ask that you keep God in your thoughts and ask Him to make the words of your mouth the Living Word that these stories are.

(place holder)

Return to top       Return to Home Page

This article © Linda Faber 2006-2009.