Storyteller Taffy Thomas provides games and activities to stimulate children’s and younger people’s capacity to tell stories

Telling stories to children builds their cognitive, social and emotional skills. It also lays the foundation for children to start creating and telling their own stories. In the process, they learn fundamental speaking and listening skills that will help them become confident and competent communicators, with resultant benefits for their wellbeing, behaviour and academic learning.

To be able to speak in front of others and sustain the interest of an audience helps a person to feel competent. These skills enable them to communicate the most important story they have: their own. The deepest purpose of telling stories is not just to leave stories in children’s minds but to turn children into storytellers.

Many of the exercises described below can be used to help build storytelling skills.

Circle games

Games that build mime and drama skills are helpful in:

  • aiding visualisation and imagination skills
  • developing the physical skills of storytelling and expressing emotion through body language
  • building trust within the group
  • learning interpersonal skills such as eye contact, turn-taking, negotiation and reciprocity.

Such games include:

The invisible box
An invisible box is passed around the circle. Each person opens it when it is passed to him or her and can imagine what they see in it. It may be something desirable, like a wished-for birthday present; or something disgusting, like a week-old sandwich. The person decides what it is when they open the box, being open to the creative thought that appears. They must demonstrate their reaction to whatever they see in the box. Afterwards, they can say what it is they saw in the box, or it can just be passed on.

The variable ball
An imaginary ball is passed or thrown around the circle. It may start with the qualities of a tennis ball but, at the facilitator’s command, it may change to become a football, a ping-pong ball, a medicine ball and so on. As group members come to understand the game, they may take over the task of changing the ball’s nature.

Killer (wink-murder)
The group stands in a circle with eyes closed. The facilitator chooses a ‘murderer’ and ‘detective’ by tapping once on the shoulder for ‘murderer’ and twice for the ‘detective’. The detective can declare himself, but the murderer remains unknown. On the command ‘Let murder commence’, the murderer kills other members of the group by discreetly winking at them when, hopefully, no one else will see. The person winked at waits for three seconds and then acts out a dramatic death.

The detective has to guess who is the murderer and has three guesses to do so. The murderer’s objective is to kill of all the members of the group before being discovered.

Lies and no statistics

Storytellers like to jest that storytelling is lying. These two exercises are about encouraging creative thinking by thinking about lies. We are all discouraged to lie and conditioned to see it as a bad thing; yet we must also learn there are times when it is important to hide one’s feelings or be ‘diplomatic’. In short, to understand when not telling the truth is a necessary social skill.

Five lies
Tell participants to write down the five biggest lies they can think of. Give some examples to give ideas:

  • ‘The world is not round at all – it is actually a giant frisbee.’
  • ‘I am third in line to become Queen of Ireland.’
  • ‘Worms can actually talk to each other and have built tunnels to Australia and other major destinations.’

Then go round in a group, sharing one at a time. This exercise can generate a lot of laughter.

Catch me out
Divide a large group into threes. Each small group should spend a minute sharing personal anecdotes of unusual things that have happened to them. It should only last about a minute. One personal story is selected for all members of the group to tell. They can personalise the story by changing names and locations, but not the key events of the story. Each person in the group tells the story as if was their own. The audience then has to guess who the actual story really belonged to, and can explore what led them to that conclusion.

Visualisation

A storyteller does not tell a story word for word but draws upon the pictures he or she has in imagination. The goal is to paint pictures in the listener’s mind that make the story come alive. So visualisation is an important part of the storytelling process. Visualisation is also a foundation for creative thinking.

Guided imagery exercises
We visualise best when feeling relaxed; so cultivating this state of mind is the first step in creative thinking. It is worth spending time helping the group to relax perhaps by lying on the floor, focusing on their own breathing or listening to sounds in the environment. The tone of the facilitator’s voice should be calm to help induce a state of relaxation.

When the group is sufficiently relaxed say something like:

  • Imagine yourself lying in a deserted and beautiful place. It may be a beach or a glade in the woods. Perhaps it is at the top of a mountain. What can you see? What can you hear? What can you feel on your skin?
  • Think of a meal you enjoyed. Can you see the food on the plate? Can you remember the taste? Can you smell the food as it was brought? Who else was there? What did you feel like when you had finished eating?

Afterwards, participants may wish to share some of their experiences in pairs or by doing a drawing.

A virtual voyage around your home
This exercise helps participants create vivid mental images. It takes about five minutes and needs a group in a calm, relaxed state where they can close their eyes. The facilitators gives the following instructions, leaving 10 to 20 second pauses between each instruction:

  • ‘Close your eyes, sit (or lie) comfortably and imagine the front door of your house.’
  • ‘I would like you to imagine you are going to take a tour around your house. You will enter through the front door and go from room to room. Take your time and do not rush.’
  • ‘You will have about five minutes to tour your house. I will tell you when the time is up. Look at each room carefully and see all the things that are in that room, you will be able to spend a few moments in each room before slowly walking to the next room. When you have been to all the rooms come back to the front door and wait there.’
  • ‘Please open the door and start your journey. You have five minutes.’
  • (after four minutes) ‘You have one minute left.’
  • (one minute later) ‘If you are not already at the front door please move slowly towards it now.’
  • ‘Please leave your house and close the door. Bring your awareness back to this room and remember what this room looks like. When you are ready open your eyes.’

Improvisation games
These games help build creativity, spontaneity and narrative skills:

One-word story
Participants stand in a circle and, by only saying one word each, must build up a sentence. The first person to start a sentence should start with words such as ‘I’, ‘Once’ or ‘The’. The next person follows with a word that makes grammatical sense and follows on from the first. It may take a group a few attempts to understand the process. The brain automatically generates words that it is expecting to hear. Saying the first word that comes into the mind enables sentences and stories to be generated quickly. If people are trying to hard to find the original or funny word, they will slow the rhythm down.

It can be helpful to start by working on short sentences. The facilitator may have to add punctuation or the sentences will continue without proper ending. When the skill of creating sentences has been mastered, then one sentence can be developed into a short story. Some of the stories will work, some will be nonsensical. Often they will be very amusing.

Storytelling roulette
The participants stand in a circle with the facilitator in the middle. Suggestions for a location for a story and an object, perhaps an ordinary household object such as a ‘frying pan’ or ‘teapot.’ The location and object need to be woven into the story at some point.

The facilitator points at one person. They have to tell a story for as long as the facilitator is pointing at them. Quickly and randomly, the facilitator can turn and point at another person in the group. The person has to continue telling the story without pausing or hesitating. The facilitator moves quickly keeping everybody on their toes.

If the group is sufficiently relaxed, an element of competition can be introduced. If anyone hesitates at any point in the story, they can drop out. The game becomes a competition to see who keeps narrating the longest.

Story challenge
In pairs, each child or young person has to think up some titles for stories and then challenge their partner to write the story. The story can be told or written down. The emphasis is on producing stories quickly and spontaneously, then developing the good ideas.

The storytelling jacket
Get an old jacket or coat and put items in the pocket such as a train ticket, a letter, a book or a toy animal. Give the jacket to a group so that they can discover the items. The facilitator asks question to prompt imaginative responses from the participants.

  • Who does this jacket belong to?
  • What is in the pockets?
  • Wonder why there is a …?
  • What do you think they were doing?
  • Does this person have any friends?

The questions help build an idea of the jacket owner’s life. From this a story can be developed, either by the group as whole or by individual participants.

Six-piece story-making

This method of helping children develop stories uses a simple structure based on common elements found in fairytales. It requires paper (A3 or larger), pencils and crayons.

Participants are asked to tell a story without words, by scribbling and drawing the story in any way they wish. Ask them to listen to the questions and draw picture for each question. They do not need to worry about the quality of the drawing as it is only to remind them what the story is.

Ask participants to divide the paper into six areas and to listen to the questions about the story. These are: 1. Think of a main character for your story – a hero or heroine; he or she can be made-up by you, from a story or myth or from a film. Where does this character live? – a house, a castle – whatever you think. What is the landscape like? 2. In every story the central character has a task or mission or a problem to solve. What is the task for your character? 3. Is there anyone who helps the main character and how do they help? 4. Who or what is the obstacle that stands in the way of the leading character carrying out their task? 5. How will he or she deal with and try to overcome the obstacle or solve the problem?

6. What happened and what is the end of the story?

When everybody has finished, participants then tell the story to either a partner, a small or whole group depending on the group’s overall level of confidence in telling.

Group story

This is an exercise for helping a group compose a story and involves ways of making decisions together. It need small groups of about five to seven people. The exercise involves asking the group to make a storyline for a film or video.

Firstly the group brainstorms ideas for things they would like to see in the film. This can include characters, locations and sequences. After a list is created, a discussion is opened about what ideas most excite the group. The group then has to enter a decision-making period of thinking what it wants to include. The over-riding principle is to make sure everybody is included in the discussion. Voting for different elements could be included.

Once a number of priorities have been decided upon, the task is to turn them into a story that links the items. One group had decided upon the TV cartoon characters, The Simpsons and wanted to include the Big Brother house and a fight scene. A story was developed that involved The Simpsons moving in the Big Brother house and having to live together for a week. They were given tasks to do and used the video diary to express how they were feeling. As they got more frustrated with each other, things escalated to a fight between Homer and Bart before they all realised they had to escape. The process of creating a story together as a group is the key task. This involves listening to each other’s ideas and working together to solve the problems that arise.

The exercise can finish after they have developed a synopsis for the story that the groups can present or ‘pitch’ to each other. The above story involving The Simpsons developed after further discussion and thoughts about locations. It involved Bart Simpson meeting Darth Vader on a spaceship and discovering Darth Vader is actually his father, Homer. This was eventually filmed as a three-minute video story after 10 weekly sessions. It involved the group thinking about story, characters, locations, learning stage-fighting and scriptwriting.

Useful Books

  • The Write Way, Phil Carradice (Lucky Duck Publishing 1996)
  • Impro and Impro for Storytellers, by Keith Johnstone, are great books not just for improvisational drama but also on human interactions.
  • Awakening the Hidden Storyteller, Robin Moore (Shambhala Publications, 1991).

Useful organisations

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