Back in 2017, our former colleague here at Early Childhood Ireland, Elaine Hynes, wrote a seasonal blog called Celebrations: new traditions and shared stories. Her opening sentence was: ‘Early childhood settings bring children, families and educators from different cultures and backgrounds together and with each child and family comes a unique story. The wonderful thing is that we all get to benefit from these stories and to draw on aspects of them all, to create new shared stories. This brings incredible richness and colour to the setting and creates a community where children develop a sense of connection and belonging and learn about values and respect through their daily interactions’.
Story! What powerful concepts story and storytelling are! We use these strategies in so many diverse ways. We share stories with each other about our families. We tell children stories about when they were younger and use these stories to help them recall experiences and people in their lives. We use stories to encourage children to act or behave in the way we would like them to. We use story to share our experiences with others. We tell stories about our holidays and celebrations. And we use them to help make children comfortable with unfamiliar experiences and upcoming events.
Why are stories so impactful and powerful? Jerome Bruner (1990: 55) says that ‘stories are especially valuable instruments for social negotiation’. I recall an educator asking a child not to walk around eating his yogurt. She told a lovely little story about a little boy she knew, who had hurt himself when he fell, with a spoon in his mouth. Vivian Gussin Paley used story extensively in her work with children to help them reflect on and make sense of their worlds and experiences. For example, in her book called ‘You Can’t Say, You Can’t Play’ (1992) she uses a friendly magpie and his adventures to support young children thinking about loneliness, friendship and inclusion. Dr Mary Roche (2015: 150) discusses the power of picture books to promote critical thinking. She says, ‘Reading aloud and discussing stories with children affords them greater opportunities to build their own narratives and explanations for the way things are and how they might imagine things differently’. And of course, we in Early Years use Learning Stories to document children’s learning. As Margaret Carr (2001:93) says, ‘A narrative approach will reflect the learning better than performance indicators’ meaning that stories that make the development of skills and knowledge visible are so much more powerful and meaningful than a more tick box approach that provides no context or information. And, as Early Years educators, we have all observed children making sense of their world as they play and share stories from their homes and families; the toddler carefully (or not!) bathing a doll as they come to terms with a new baby at home or the children eagerly telling us about the new calves or lambs in springtime, for example.
So, coming to this festive time of year and looking at using the power of story to socially negotiate, help children reflect and see how other families do things differently and to share their own stories. Making the time and providing opportunities to ask the families to share their stories and traditions at this time of year can bring benefits way beyond the busy Christmas season. You’ll find out which families go ‘all-out’, the families for whom it is not a significant cultural celebration and the families who mark Christmas in a low-key way. Maybe parents might come and visit to tell stories about how they celebrate Christmas, or other cultural or religious rituals in their family or country of origin? They might share photos that help tell the story to help children see other traditions and discuss similarities and differences. As Elaine Hynes says, these conversations make our settings diverse, rich and inclusive. Respecting the traditions of others while valuing our own through shared stories enriches us all.
- Bruner, Jerome; Acts of Meaning 1990
- Carr, Margaret; Assessment in Early Childhood settings, Learning Stories 2001
- Gussin Paley, Vivian; You Can’t Say You Can’t Play 1992
- Roche, Dr Mary; Developing Children’s Critical Thinking through Picturebooks 2015