Many schools participate in National Storytelling Week, organised by the Society for Storytelling. This article describes how traditional storytelling can help to address difficult emotional issues, and stresses the importance of letting children and young people find their own meanings in the stories that they hear

The storyteller and teacher Rose Owens once wrote an article describing how she felt the walls going up when she attempted to tackle a difficult issue with emotionally disturbed youngsters. However, when she told them stories, they relaxed and settled into the narrative. There was no stress, no sense of expectation. They were not expected to learn ‘a point’ or to notice and talk about ‘an issue’. Each listener could find the piece of wisdom they needed, or just listen to a story and enjoy it.

Many levels
Traditional stories speak gently and wisely at many different levels. They make many ‘points’ or no point at all. While reading stories is good, telling stories is a more powerful emotional experience.

It is tempting to embellish stories and add lots of detail, characterisation and background. Some storytellers do this. However, it is important not to interpret the story for the listener but let it speak directly to them. There is much to be said for very simple retellings that call on the listener’s imagination to supply details and make it their own. Below is an example of how I might recount a traditional tale.

It is important not to interpret the story for the listener but let it speak directly to them

Parts of ourselves
We can think of characters in a story representing different parts of ourselves. John might be the idealistic, kind part: the brothers the practical, ruthless sides of our natures. The statues might be aspects of ourselves that are frozen and need release. Alternatively, the story might raise issues of power: who was really the most powerful? Were the brothers wrong to want to kill and eat animals? Are there limits to kindness? We might relate to the pleasure the brothers found in bullying a weaker person; most of us have that capacity though we may not use it. Or we may relate to John’s sadness and pain at being teased.

Bringing issues
I would not raise these issues directly but let the listeners hear in the story what they need to hear. Listeners can bring up such issues for themselves, if they wish to, in the context of a session where they are invited to suggest their own questions as starting points for an open-ended discussion. Then, if bullying does come up, it will be in the context of the story – the brothers bullied John. A group might discuss:

  • Why did they do that?
  • How did John react?
  • How might John have reacted?

Despite the sensitivity of the issue, the discussion is safe because no child is asked to admit either to bullying or being bullied.

You could pick a quality like kindness or courage and ask listeners if and where they see it in the story. Or roll lining paper across the floor, throw pens, crayons along it and then ask the children or young people to do some graffiti based on the story – words, phrases, pictures – whatever they like. This allows the listener to ‘play’ with the story in their head, to chat about the story with their peers and to do so in a relaxed environment.

Noticing strengths
I asked a group of Year 3 children what strengths they noticed in the story. They surprised me by seeing things I had not noticed myself, and by seeing strengths in the brothers as well as in John – the obvious ‘hero’. They spotted John’s hopefulness in agreeing to help though his brothers had already been turned to stone, but also the older brothers’ practical or prudent natures: what would John have found to eat, after all? They noticed John’s forgiveness of his brothers, and his brothers’ courage, which equalled John’s own. They noticed the older brothers’ persistence; each one searched all day long as hard as he could. They noticed friendship – John befriended the animals he met – and also a rather surprising strength, spirituality, in John’s awareness of the beauty of nature. I suspect each child noticed a strength that he or she possessed, and found it affirmed in the story.

The only limit on how we follow up a story is our own creativity and imagination

Staying with the story
Other ways of staying with the story would be for listeners to:

  • tell their own version
  • dramatise a scene or scenes
  • do group pictures of either a scene or a character, to retell the story from a different view point
  • add sound and music to the story.

Really the only limit on how we follow up a story is our own creativity and imagination. While we work with a story, we provide continued opportunities for it to offer help and wisdom as well as the emotional tools that all human beings, especially young ones, need to make sense of themselves and of life.

National Storytelling Week is organised by the Society for Storytelling. For more information visit

This article is by Jenny Fox Eades. Jenny’s book Classroom Tales: Using Storytelling to Build Emotional, Social and Academic Skills across the Primary Curriculum is published by Jessica Kingsley at £13.99.