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Tell me a story!


Tuesday 29 September 2020

I am wondering if I have the hang of blogging. A blog, I think, is meant not only to tell but to engage – maybe to share a story!

Sir Ken Robinson, who died recently, was a great storyteller.  Make no mistake about it, he had a perspective on education, one that many subscribed to (myself included). But while many of us have opinions and perspectives on early childhood education, few have the capacity, style or presence to engage listeners in quite the way Sir Ken did. He told stories to illustrate his point, he made me laugh while at the same time, connected me to his core message.

I believe that storytelling is one of the greatest capacities that we have and one that we should foster with children. The great thing about storytelling in early childhood settings is that it is not resource heavy; what it demands is time, attention, active listening and intentionality on the part of the educator. In other words, we need to value storytelling and we need to model storytelling.  When I was growing up, many moons ago, telling stories had the connotation of ‘telling lies’, which may have had some truth at times. But of course, storytelling is deeply embedded in our culture - just think about the Seanchaí, who passed on local history through narrative.  The spoken or written retelling is part of who we are because ‘we dream in narrative, daydream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticise, construct, gossip, learn, hate and live by narrative’ (Hardy, 1977, p13).

I have a favourite book that has nothing to do with early childhood, ‘Learning through Storytelling in Higher Education’.  This book reminds me of the power of stories to support learning and while this is aimed at those teaching young adults, in reality, I think it holds true for our work with young children.  Storytelling is a way of making meaning and could almost be considered a therapeutic process. Just think about the last time you chatted with a friend, you probably recounted a story.  The story of how you managed to reopen the setting, the story of the lost holiday deposit, the story of losing someone or of a joyful moment when you felt at one with the world. Jerome Bruner (1986, p.69), who heavily influences early childhood education, says that stories help us understand our self and brings together cognition, emotion and action. I think what he means is that in storytelling we shape and put out our experiences to our listeners. We allow others to enter our world (we give a little of ourselves) and sometimes we need to retell a story a few times for emotional release and enable us to let go. Telling stories requires us to remember and reflect on an episode, reorganise our thoughts and sequence our ideas. Every story needs a listener who is engaged and maybe hangs on every word that is said. 

A master of listening to children’s stories, who died last year, is Vivian Gussin Paley.  If you have not read any of her work, just get a copy of any of her books, maybe start with ‘The Boy who would be a Helicopter’, as it is a celebration of children’s imagination.  Vivian taught us how to value, listen to and record children’s stories.  One of the things that struck me deeply is the idea of creating a habit of storytelling and story-listening. Like everything else in life, practice makes perfect and the more children have the opportunity to tell their story and to be heard, the more skilled, confident, and creative they become in recounting their experiences or simply letting us know what is on their minds.  Vivian offers a framework to capture their stories. Just google her name and you will get articles and YouTube clips galore.  This link will bring you to an interview she did in 2011 and it will give you a sense of her story or perspective on narrative in the early childhood classroom or setting.

We are so lucky in early childhood to also have Margaret Carr and Wendy Lee, who have both introduced us to ways of seeing and sharing stories – this needs a separate blog all on its own! But the point I am making is that storytelling is an amazing capacity, which I believe we should use ourselves and foster intentionally in our work with young children.

But back to Sir Ken, who got me thinking about the power of stories and narrative. Maybe I’m shallow, but I fell in love with his ideas partially because they endorsed my own beliefs. I was also hooked in and enamoured with his ways of telling the story, sharing the message – the story of passion, willingness to have a go, creativity and imagination.

All of these capabilities or dispositions are in the DNA of most early childhood educators or teachers, so let’s celebrate the power and joy of creative narrative.



Hardy, B. (1977). Towards a poetics of fiction: An approach through narrative. IN M. Meek, A. Warlow & G. Barton. (Eds.).  The cool web: the patterns of children’s reading. London: The Bodley Head.



Marlene McCormack is a lecturer and placement coordinator on the Bachelor of Early Childhood Education in the DCU Institute of Education. Over her time in early childhood, she has worn many hats, as playgroup leader, centre manager, director of training, department head in ECI and always as an advocate for those working directly with children and families.  Her current focus is on preparing students for professional practice and her research interests include pedagogy and documentation.   



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