‘A story is a door to another world, a world inside us, in the imagination. Child readers find many of their role models here, characters they want to resemble, heroes, ideals. The message is…however powerless you think you are, you can still overcome, by determination, cooperation with others, and refusal to be afraid’ (Bigger, 2009).

Stories have been used throughout time to describe worthwhile qualities, positive values and role models and to make sense of human experience. Aesop’s fables and Hans Christian Andersen were part of my childhood, and I remember a favourite tale about an inquisitive elf that appealed to my desire to want know everything aged five!
In the early years setting, stories will work on several different layers at the same time. For example, they will:

  • enrich language and literacy, building a sense of community and culture through the shared experience of listening and creating a story together
  • nurture an ongoing schema pattern in one or more children
  • sustain and support personal social and emotional development (PSED).

Telling the story with passion
The telling of the story is as important as the content. I recall visiting a nursery class and realising with horror that the children were watching the pages of The Gruffalo being turned in a desultory fashion by their teacher, while they listened to the words on a tape! What a missed opportunity – to say the word ‘gruffalo’ in a growly, scary voice, to discuss what we might be frightened of, to ask if anyone has ever met a gruffalo, to converse in squeaky voices like the little mouse. Developing positive feelings will be part of our work – adults and children love to listen to a good story! Making a story session – whether you read the story, tell it or make it up – fun and enjoyable will immediately contribute to a positive environment for learning. Neil Griffiths, creator of ‘Storysacks’, says we must be prepared to be an ‘actor for a while’ (see Early Years Update 84).

Examining feelings and experiences
Establishing and maintaining a selection of good story books in order to respond to different feelings, experiences and struggles is vital. Used with sensitivity and pedagogical awareness, these ‘core books’ will then form part of your PSED curriculum. Taking advantage of the local library and books lent by parents will fill any gaps.

A well-crafted story will address difficult issues as part of the storyline. For example, Frog and the Birdsong by Max Velthuijs introduces the idea of death in a gentle, informative, yet reassuring way. The story is good in its own right, and will be far more effective than a ‘technical’ instructional book. I Want my Potty! by Tony Ross and Dirty Bertie by David Roberts are other good examples.

Stories that explore emotions will help children express and understand their own feelings and those of others. Aldo by John Burningham considers the difficult issues of loneliness, bullying and parents fighting, but offers hope in the form of Aldo (‘I know he will always come to me when things get really bad’). Owl Babies by Martin Waddell reassures that parents will return, even though you may feel scared while they are gone. Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman deals with prejudice and fairness with confidence and marvellous illustrations – ‘You can be anything you want, Grace, if you put your mind to it.’

Many stories lend themselves to being followed up with small world or role play, so children can extend and deepen their experience. Tyrone the Terrible by Hans Wilhelm, The Tiger who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr or Where’s my Teddy by Jez Alborough are just a few suggestions.

The right story at the right time will help you to:

  • respond creatively to a child’s feelings and experiences
  • introduce new skills (and remind about others, ie please and thank you)
  • give insight into behaviour
  • stimulate curiosity and understanding
  • mark a special event
  • provide comfort or reassurance
  • engage children in problem-solving.

Using puppets and props
Children can be taught problem-solving skills through simple examples illustrated by puppets or persona dolls. Using puppets and props will enliven your stories, and help you to respond to either a group experience or to an individual’s struggle (McTavish, 2007). In subtle ways, this can ripple out and help children develop empathy and negotiation skills. Siraj-Blatchford and colleagues (2002, p12) noted that consistent, dedicated practitioners who supported children in developing their social skills through, for example, ‘story books and group discussions to work through common conflicts,’ had better social/behavioural developmental outcomes.

The ‘mouse in the box’ story prop described below also helped the children learn how to care for and be gentle with something smaller than themselves. Edgington (2004, p120) discusses how the opportunity to care for small animals can directly link to care and respect for others: ‘Children are less likely to bully within a caring environment of this kind.’

Spontaneous stories – responding to children’s feelings and interest

The ‘mice in the box’ story
It was Monday morning and some of the children were still settling in after the weekend. After a lively song and movement session outdoors, a small group of three- and four-year-old children stayed behind, fascinated by a puppet prop of three white mice in a red cloth box (see Puppets by Post).

‘If we made-up a story about the mice, what could we call it?” I asked.

One child immediately piped up, ‘The mice at home’. ‘Great,’ I said, ‘and we could begin: “Once upon a time…”’ and I waited.

The children looked at me, and then one said, pointing at each mouse, ‘There were one, two, three little mice!’, ‘…and they liked to eat cheese!’ said another ‘…and strawberries!’ said another.

We were on a roll now – ‘chips!’ and ‘ketchup!’ The children were really enjoying creating this story together.

‘They were very happy! The end!’

Responding to the children’s enthusiasm, I helped them chant the story slowly several times, their delight growing at each go. I wrote the story out and the children quickly began to call out their names, keen to be known as the authors. On the back page, they took turns to draw a small picture to illustrate the story. Their patience in waiting and the respectful attention they gave to each other’s drawings showed the depth of their engagement in this process.

This example illustrates:

  • responding creatively to a child’s feelings and experiences – their interest in the mouse prop and experience of what mice might like to eat
  • introducing new skills – co-creating a short story together; practising taking turns and listening to each other
  • marking a special event – the end of the song and movement session, where the children experienced a feeling of intimacy in being in a group together
  • providing comfort or reassurance – rather than having to leave the intimacy of the song group immediately, those who were still settling in that morning were able to stay and participate in the story-making. This helped them make the transition to free play and taking part in the rest of the day’s activities.

Puppets, dual language books and a variety of story-tales from around the world will support those for whom English is an additional language. Firsthand experiences and games to practise (with no need for the spoken word) also need to be planned. There are many excellent ideas in the Primary National Strategy document Supporting Children Learning English as an Additional Language.

Varied ways to use stories to support PSED

  • A ‘social story’ to support a child to respond appropriately in a particular situation. Social stories may consist of a pictorial daily timetable or part of a routine that a child is struggling with.
  • Story of the day – in small groups, reflect on the successes, achievements and positive attempts to resolve difficulties during the day.
  • A story for ritual – create a simple book describing an experience the children have; for example, parents saying goodbye, moving to a new school or preparing for a special outing.
  • A photographic book – take pictures depicting different areas in the setting (book corner, lunch space, bathroom) and main adults – this can be shared on a home visit or when new children visit the setting.
  • A real event – going to hospital, biting or the arrival of a new baby.
  • A specific behaviour – for example name-calling/swearing. The book Two Monsters by David McKee tells the tale of two monsters who shout at each other over a mountain, eventually knocking the mountain down as they hurl rocks over it. It gives name-calling a ‘place’, and can help you to set limits about behaviour you wish to discourage.

In conclusion: a valuable shared experience
Children need fair-minded adults who want to understand them, and help them develop the skills they need to be in the world, with fun and enjoyment. Both children and adults will benefit from the shared experience of a well-placed story for learning.

References and resources

  • Bigger, S (2009) ‘Literature for Learning: Can Stories Enhance Children’s Education?’ published in the journal ALMAS in Pakistan
  • DCSF (2007) Supporting Children Learning English as an Additional Language
  • Edgington, M (2004) The Foundation Stage Teacher in Action, third Edition
  • McTavish, A (2007) Feelings and Behaviour: a Creative Approach, Early Education
  • McTavish, A (2008) Sing a Song, Tell a tale, Early Education
  • Siraj-Blatchford, I, et al (2002) Researching Effective Pedagogy in the Early Years, DFES
  • National Literacy Trust
  • Social stories
Books addressing feelings and experiences

  • Bullying/aggressive behaviour/not sharing:
    • Bootsey Barker Bites by Barbara Bottner
    • Not Now Bernard by David McKee
    • MINE! by Hiawyn Oram and Mary Rees
  • Death and dying:
    • Grandpa by John Burningham
    • Frog and the Birdsong by Max Velthuijs
  • Loneliness:
    • Aldo by John Burningham
    • Leon and Bob by Simon James
  • Needing a hero/heroine:
    • The Paper Bag Princess by Robert N Munsch
    • Isabel’s Noisy Tummy by David McKee
    • Cannonball Simp by John Burningham
  • To reassure and sooth:
    • Husherbye by John Burningham
    • Owl Babies by Martin Waddell
  • Prejudice:
    • Frog in Love and Frog and the Stranger by Max Velthuijs
    • Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman
  • Fear:
    • Frog is Frightened! by Max Velthuijs
    • Shhh! by Sally Grindley and Peter Utton
    • A Dark, Dark Tale by Ruth Brown
  • Exciting, participatory stories:
    • Oi! Get off our Train by John Burningham
    • The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig by Eugene Trivizas and Helen Oxenbury
    • We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen
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