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Cross-curricular resources: National Storytelling Week

Storytelling still has a vital role to play in nurturing young minds, writes Dale Sruary

Storytelling still has a vital role to play in nurturing young minds, writes Dale Sruary

  • National Storytelling Week, 28 January - 4 February
    • Storytelling is an invitation. When Jack ascends the beanstalk or Rapunzel lets down her hair, we are invited to enter the mind of another, to allow our own world to be subsumed by a world at once entirely different from, yet reminiscent of, our own.

      In the process, our understanding may be fundamentally changed. How the world works can be put into clearer perspective and we may begin to move in a direction different from anything we had ever imagined. It can be unfamiliar, even disquieting, but ultimately makes complete sense by the time we reach "the end".

      That describes how many of us, children and adults, respond to fairy tales. What is it about the work of Charles Perrault, Madame Le Prince de Beaumont or the Brothers Grimm that casts such a powerful spell over us?

      The fact that the storytelling tradition extends unbroken to the earliest humans shows quite clearly that, as CS Lewis wrote, "Sometimes fairy stories may say best what's to be said." They are filled with promise; they reaffirm an idealistic ethos we all want to believe in; they are the world as we would like it to be. Heroes and villains are easily identified. Good actions are rewarded and bad ones punished. Right prevails; wrong fails. Order is imposed on disorder. The people worthy of emulation - warm-hearted, steadfast and selfless - confront nightmarish situations and, in the end, triumph. In fairy tales, there truly are just rewards. Albeit imbued with a sort of adolescent romance, these tales teach children that tribulation is a part not just of growing up, but of life itself.

      The positive resolution of "happily ever after" also teaches children that, like the heroes and heroines, they can overcome their own fears. A moral universe is confirmed.

      These stories can be a magic mirror that reflects aspects of the listener's moods and interests from almost any era or any culture. Fantasy enables us to remove ourselves from our known surroundings, giving us what we do not have but perhaps wish for: talking animals, singing rivers, enchanted castles, magic.

      To an adult, these are exaggerations or untruths, but to a child whose imagination has not yet been curbed by realistic explanations, fantasy elements are still part of their lexicon of the possible, or even probable. They accept flying monkeys or car-driving toads because they have not yet learned to reject them, and because such events and characters add vibrancy and pleasure to a world they are still in the process of defining for themselves.

      Not everyone agrees. Since the 1970s, many teachers, parents, and religious figures have deplored these tales for promoting a sexist, authority-ridden world view. They seem not to understand that the story of Cinderella, for example, is hardly about a beautiful young woman whose passivity requires magical help so she can meet and marry a prince, but the consequences of making choices. Will she become like her haughty, ill- tempered stepmother or remain true to her good, sweet-tempered birth mother? Because she chooses the latter, she wins the prince and her stepsisters do not. She finds the right person by being the right person.

      Snow White is not an idealistic, naive girl easily deceived by a cunning queen; her tale is a dramatisation of the real-life tension between the innocence and purity of youth and the physical decline and cynicism of age. It is also about outer demeanour as an index to inner character. The soul of Snow White makes children feel a kinship with her, even as the shrivelled soul of the queen inspires children to reject her.

      Given some fairy tales' dark images, it is understandable that some parents shy away from them for fear of traumatising young readers. Yet, as GK Chesterton observed, "Children already know about dragons. What fairy tales tell children is that dragons can be slain." While it's important to choose age-appropriate stories to read to children, we should not be afraid to quicken and enlarge their minds with fantasy. In fact, far more risky is our own electronic age, in which they increasingly depend on the internet and video games for education and entertainment.

      Parents are well aware of the dangers of the predatory potential of the internet for vulnerable children. Perhaps less clear is the danger to a child's intellectual development. We would never inject our children with some substance that might render their senses numb to the tart crispness of a freshly picked apple or the cool relief of a clear lake's waters on a hot August day. Neither should we allow our visual and aural culture to inject them with material or pastimes that deaden their imaginations and anaesthetise their capacity for wonder.

      The sense of human connection, the power of imaginative engagement between storyteller and listener adds more to the mind's development than millions of pixels. This is because to listen to the simple prose of a fairy tale is to hear a voice that speaks directly to us in its own distinctive and enthralling way.

      When reading to a child, the parent's voice blends with the narrator's and a special bond develops between teller and listener. The listener is exercising, even expanding his or her imagination to fashion a vision of the story from hearing the words.

      Unpretentious and wise, even a bit old-fashioned, the voice telling the tales beguiles us early and will not let go. In its company we feel safe and consoled. In that narrative, we can allow ourselves to wander, to pretend, to believe and, like so many of the characters in these tales, come back home safely.

      Some of my most cherished memories stem from snuggling into bed next to my mother, opening a book of choice and listening as she read to me, in private. Since childhood, my mother's voice has rung clearly in my head, as have the voices of other storytellers. Most devotees say the same. Once the clouds of sound and colour have surrounded us, they are with us forever.

      Dale Salwak is professor of English at Citrus College in Glendora, California. He is the author of "Teaching Life: letters from a life in literature" and the editor of "Afterword: conjuring the literary dead" (University of Iowa Press)

      WHAT ELSE?

      A number of creative storytelling starters can be found in the Teachers TV collection on TES Resources.

      For classic storytelling try Christianne's myths, legends and fables resource.

      Help pupils to develop digital storytelling skills with a resource from bevevans22.

      Key stage 1: storytelling activities and lesson ideas

      Inspiring ideas for exciting storytelling in the classroom have been provided by TES English.

      Key stage 2: character, setting and dilemma

      Use sphinx thinker's pictorial cue cards to encourage story creation.

      Key stage 3: descriptive writing

      Develop stories through touch, taste, sight, smell and sound with cooksley's stepped worksheet.

      Key stage 4: what's in my pocket?

      Saralouised has shared a creative-writing activity to stimulate ideas for characters and their back stories, which links nicely to Of Mice and Men coursework.

      Key stage 5: the novel and the short story

      This resource is a comprehensive guide to structural elements.

      Find all links and resources at


      Teachers discuss the difference between fairy tales and traditional tales on the TES Primary forum. This thread includes useful advice on planning fairy tale topics.


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