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Books: Fantasy and Purpose in Children's Storytelling

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In the following excerpts from The Boy Who Would Be a Helicoptor, the MacArthur Award-winning teacher Vivian Gussin Paley describes experiences with preschoolers at the University of Chicago's Laboratory Schools illustrating social and developmental uses of children's storytelling:

Who are you, Lilly?" I bend low to ask the bonneted figure pulling a straw purse over my feet.

"Me and Eli losted our baby," she says, disappearing into the cubby room.

Later, Lilly the story player becomes Lilly the storyteller, a fragile change of perspective that has enabled me, after many years, to find my role as teacher.

"Once upon a time the mother and the daddy goed hunting for their little girl. That girl is in a trapdoor. The end."

A day without storytelling is, for me, a disconnected day. The children at least have their play, but I cannot remember what is real to the children without their stories to anchor fantasy and purpose.

I listen to the stories three times: when they are dictated, when we act them out, and finally at home, as I transcribe them from my tape recorder. After that, I talk about them to the children whenever I can. The stories are at the center of this fantasy of mine that one day I will link together all the things we do and say in the classroom.

What if there had been no storytelling on the day Joseph needed to create a new ending for Hot Hippo? An angry ending. Then I could not have said to him on another angry day, "Remember when you were Hot Hippo and you ate up all the fish?"

In the original African tale, Hippo is hot. He goes to Ngai, god of all creatures, and asks to live in the water. No, says Ngai, because you will eat my fish. I won't, promises Hippo: I'll swish my tail and open my mouth wide so you can see there are no fish bones. All right, says Ngai, but you must come out of the water at night. Hippo is content, and there the book ends.

But Joseph is compelled to reshape the issues. His Ngai commands Hippo to eat the fish. Joseph fairly rises from his seat as he speaks the words, "Jump in the water, Hot Hippo, and eat the fish! I hate them all. Eat up every animal!"

Samantha is not pleased. She decides to be Hippo in a story of her own. Now, when Hippo asks to live in the water, Ngai falls dead and Hippo is the new god. "Hippo is the god of the whole everyone," Samantha announces. "And no bothering is allowed."

Who are these people who dare to reinvent mythology? They are the children found in every classroom thinking up plot and dialogue without instruction. And,4for the most part, without the teacher's awareness.

Amazingly, children are born knowing how to put every thought and feeling into story form. If they worry about being lost, they become the parents who search; if angry, they find a hot hippopotamus to impose his will upon the world. Even happiness has its plot and characters: "Pretend I'm the baby and you only love me and you don't talk on the telephone."

It is play, of course, but it is also story in action, just as storytelling is play put into narrative form. The distinctions are important to me because this story playing and storytelling has become the curriculum of any classroom in which I am the teacher. Somewhere in each fantasy is a lesson that promises to lead me to questions and commentary, allowing me to glimpse the universal themes that bind together the individual urgencies. ...

"I heered robbers," Edward whispers. "I'll put them in jail."

"No, me," Eli argues.

"Not both. That's too many. One has to ... not too many."

"Yeah, you be the dad police and I'm the big brother police."

"Two both police?"

"Not too many."

"That's just two. Two both a dad and a brother also."

No teacher could conjure up as good a lesson to explain "too many" and "both." Eli and Edward, using fantasy play, are able to visualize such abstractions from inside a story. In dramatizing a concept, the child finds the natural method for concentration and continuity and satisfies the intuitive belief in hidden meanings.

This is why play feels so good. Discovering and using the essence of any part of ourselves is the most euphoric experience of all. It opens the blocked passages and establishes new routes. Any approach to language and thought that eliminates dramatic play and its underlying themes of friendship and safety lost and found, ignores the greatest incentive to the creative process.

Play and its necessary core of storytelling are the primary realities in the preschool and kindergarten, and they may well be the prototypes for imaginative endeavors throughout our lives. ...

As Lilly dictates her story, half a dozen other themes splash noisily around us from all directions:

"Y'wanna play tiger? Sabre tooth?"

"Superman! I shotted you."

"Are you the dad, Simon? Here's our cave for good bears." ...

Not one child asks, "What's everyone doing? Who are these crawling, crouching, climbing people?" There is no confusion, only the desire to fit into someone's story or convince a classmate to enter yours.

But let the teacher order so simple a change in routine as new snack groups, and the tension mounts. Whose group am I in? Where should I go? The teacher is not at fault. The natural order in a preschool classroom rules against any plan that sidesteps fantasy or friendship. The children do not fathom her premises or follow her logic.

Had the teacher said, "Simon, since you were Joseph's dad before in the bear cave, you must move to his table," then everyone would understand and approve. Or, had a child suggested, "Pretend a robber stealed the table and then we finded a different one," the new plan would come alive.

"Pretend" often confuses the adult, but it is the child's real and serious world, the stage upon which any identity is possible and secret thoughts can be safely revealed. ...

Children's own rites and images seem mainly concerned with the uses of friendship and fantasy to avoid fear and loneliness and to establish a comfortable relationship with people and events. In play, the child says, "I can do this well; I can be this effectively; I understand what is happening to me and to the other children."

In storytelling, a child says, "This is how I interpret and translate right now something that is on my mind." Joseph puts aside his usual Batman or snake stories to tell a very different sort of story the day after his baby sister is born.

"Once upon a time there was a forest. And then there was a husband came. And a wife to the husband. And a baby was there. And the baby had a gun. And when the baby grew up the baby went hunting with the father."

From where do such stories originate? One can imagine possible meanings: The forest represents the unknown; to call mother and father a "wife and husband" shows Joseph's feeling of estrangement; the baby with a gun--babies never have guns--ensures its separation from the mother. There are no certainties and no answers. Joseph has envisioned a story in which to place his confusion. Having told his story and acted it out, he knows something he did not know before, and he will use the new information as the need arises. ...

Throughout the day, I may refer to similarities between a child's story and other stories, books, or events, though I try to avoid doing this while the story is being dictated. I don't wish to impose undue influence on the course of the story. The children, of course, have no such qualms; influencing one another is exactly what they intend to do.

Katie is first on today's list. "There's a snake in my story too," she tells Joseph, though a moment earlier we had been informed that her story was about a red crayon. "A red crayon comes," she had begun, but now her goal is to capture Joseph's attention.

"Once upon a time a snake comes," she says, and Joseph and Simon sit down to listen. "And then a lion scardered them away.

"Who is them?" I ask.

"Yeah, who's them?" echoes Simon. The children copy my habit of questioning the storyteller, hardly needing me to instruct them. They question one another continually in play, and I simply do as they do. I have, in fact, learned from them about question asking. They seldom, for instance, ask a question of another child if they already know the answer.

"Is there someone in the story besides snake, Katie?"

"It's alligator!" She is surprised. Don't I remember that Simon was alligator in a recent story of Joseph's?

"Don't have a bad alligator," Simon tells her.

"I won't."

In storytelling, as in play, the social interactions we call interruptions usually improve the narrative. Yet I can recall a time when I would say, "Please don't interrupt. Let people tell their own stories.'' That was when I missed the main point of storytelling. I did not understand it to be a shared process, a primary cultural institution, the social art of language.

Katie continues: "And then came the mother." There is always a mother in Katie's story. It is her main theme; all else is stage business and socializing. "I'm the mother," she says. "I growed big and I scardered the lion away by a red crayon."

"Scared the lion?" I offer to correct.

"Scar-der-rered," she insists and is off to the doll corner before I can ask why the lion is afraid of a red crayon.

Perhaps I'll find out later when we act out her story. It is one of my favorite kinds of questions because there is no way to anticipate the answer. Sometimes I wonder if the children deliberately think up such oddities because they know it pleases me to find good questions. Even if this could be true, it would demonstrate that children feel rewarded by the genuine curiosity of others. In an environment where people listen carefully and ask relevant questions because they need more information, storytellers may indeed be inspired to put surprises into their stories. Inevitably, the children learn the logical implications of an unexpected outcome. It is good training for the lifelong study of cause and effect.

From The Boy Who Would Be a Helicoptor by Vivian Gussin Paley. Copyright 1990 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Reprinted by permission of Harvard University Press.

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