By Dave Woods – children’s author and co-founder of the personalised BE Books™ stories.
Storytime is a child’s first experience of space travel. Their first taste of underwater exploration. Their first encounter with a monster. It’s where they learn to hone their emotions. Excitement. Fear. Laughter. Curiosity. All woven together while they sit, wide-eyed and breathless, as tale after tale unfolds before them. New worlds of knowledge and experience painted with unforgettable strokes onto the blank canvasses of their hungry young minds.
The Storytime Ritual. As timeless as it is spontaneous. As nerve-jangling as it is reassuring. It creates thoughtful windows of serenity in our relentless, screen-obsessed lives. And builds a priceless bond between parent and child. On one hand, it’s a forum to tell thrilling adventures and instil a lifelong love of reading, on the other it’s a platform to gently touch on a child’s real-life concerns when they’re relaxed and accessible. Are you afraid of monsters? … or anything else? … anyone at school? … (a discreet way in to raise the difficult subject of bullying, perhaps?). It can offer a way of bridging those two distant worlds of home and school.
My Belgian wife and I read all the tried and trusted classics to our three young children. She in French, me in English. Lots of morality tales – like Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories – which were/are a particular family favourite. But every Storytime Ritual is unique to every family. In our household, if our kids were well behaved (which was rare) they’d get one of The ‘Woods’ Stories, as they came to be known. (Woods is our family surname, insert your own name if you want to try this on your own offspring.)
The Woods Stories, to this very day, are still talked about by my three children (now 23, 21 and 19). These were special stories, where the children themselves were heroes in their own bedtime stories. Yes, the tales took a little pre-planning, but they were unforgettable moments of escape for them. And for me as a father!
A Woods Story always started with a journey to some fantastic new location: an exotic island / a distant mountaintop / a dense jungle / an underground cave – you get the idea. Or we might time-travel back to the age of dinosaurs (a favourite) / the time of knights and dragons / the Wild West / some far corner of the universe in a rocket, and so on. And, in order for the tale to be told, my three children had to be properly prepared: pyjamas on, teeth cleaned and perched in a neat row in mummy and daddy’s bed.
Then, before the actual Woods Story could start, the children had to ‘journey’ to the place where the story would begin. To do this, they had to go to that fabled land of scintillating suspense and excitement – under the covers. That was where they would be transported. In every sense. And there, in the darkness, safe and warm, I’d begin telling the story and they’d start imagining it across the pages of their minds. Just like the ancient art of storytelling that arose across many cultures, without a single book in sight. True storytelling relies on the intimacy between the teller and their audience. Weaving tales around their specific needs and that particular location. Making the potential for each story, for any family, to be as unique as a child’s own fingerprint.
Our Woods Stories were characterised by elements of interaction. Whilst penning this article, I asked my middle child, Daphne, what sprang to mind when she thought back to those stories. “It was a bit like 4D cinema,” she said, her eyes glowing. (She’s a veteran of Universal Studios and other experiential theme parks, so has the lingo off pat.) “You used to flick water at us in the dark to create the sensation of being at sea in a big storm!” (Just a cup of water, hidden under the bed before story time, with a few flicked drops across their closed eyes, which brought to life the dramatic ocean voyage that I’d already planned they would undertake in that particular tale.) “And I remember the lightning flashing over our ship!” (Created by switching off the bedroom light, then flickering it on and off rapidly with booming sound effects to create the accompanying donner to the blitzen. Cheap, but very effective.)
In every different Woods Story, each child would always have their own little backpack. And in those three backpacks were key elements they would need to either save them or help them progress as they continued their quest. It might be a torch. A dog. A magic wand. A can of beans. A length of rope. But it was always vital. (And always pre-planned.) Three children. Three backpacks. Three empowering moments in each Woods Story. A simple narrative device that kept them engaged throughout. Why let your children just ‘listen’ to a story when they can actually ‘be’ the story? They also had their own superpowers based on their own personalities, like strong reading skills, or keen eyesight or problem-solving abilities or just doing something silly, which let them exert their own personal influence on the direction of the tale. And, importantly, gave them a sense of control.
“Why let your children just ‘listen’ to a story when they can actually ‘be’ the story?”
The more you put into your storytelling, the more you get out of it. Both your children, and you as a parent. Can’t make up your own stories? There’s still a happy ending – just start adding simple ‘experiential’ moments to any story you read them. You’ll quickly become a master storyteller – spontaneous and inventive. Like rustling curtains if a monster is lurking outside, or adding sound effects to action scenes, or reading in different characters’ voices, or plunging the bedroom into darkness (get ready for screams of delight!) then continuing to tell the story in the inky blackness to fire their imaginations.
I believe the Storytime Ritual should be more than just a snatched, dutiful moment at the end of a busy working day (although I stress this is better than nothing and at times, I’ve had to do the same thing myself). Whenever and wherever possible though, it should be seen as the invaluable family-empowering opportunity it really is. Something to be enhanced. Personalised. Maximised. A just-a-few-fleeting-years-in-a-lifetime experience for you and your children. One to be celebrated.
The Storytime Ritual is a rite of passage for every child. Where, with a little extra effort, you can create moments that will last forever. Memories that will inform your little heroes as they, in the dim, distant future, become storytellers to children of their own.
About the expert
Dave Woods is a children’s author and co-founder of the personalised BE Books™ stories, which are a new series of mini morality tales based on different real-life values. BeHeld.com has been created to Support Parents, Inspire Children and Empower Families through the power of storytelling.