Collaborative Storytelling with Children: Honoring the Voice of the Child

A child looks at a book with alternative story lines by peers.

By Nandini Bhattacharjya, Head Teacher, and Betsy Koning, Teacher 

Once upon a time, the children in West AM began to show a flair for storytelling and dictated a variety of stories for teachers to write down at the language table. Thinking this interest had the makings of a group project, the teachers sought a way of focusing this activity on a unifying theme. The South African folktale and lullaby Abiyoyo retold by Pete Seeger came to mind since it usually intrigues children and inspires them to ask many questions regarding the story arc. The teacher leading story time decided to read the book without showing the illustrations to leave more of the interpretation of the story up to the children’s imagination. Throughout the week, she allowed the children to create their own illustrations through a combination of drawing and collage. Children loved this idea and created detailed pictures that also led to additions to the story. 

This opened a window to a different way of storytelling. The teachers decided to continue experimenting to see what would happen if children had an opportunity to add their own ideas to a storyline from some of the books from our library. As the children’s ideas poured in, we wrote each one down on a Post-it note on the relevant page. 

We chose a book with a simple narrative that lent itself to being extended beyond the author’s original ending, Let’s Make Rabbits by Leo Lionni. At the end of the tale, two paper rabbits become real and hop off the pages of the book. Teachers asked the children what they thought would happen next. Over the course of the week, many children added interesting adventures that the bunnies embarked upon after they were free from the pages of the book. Some adventures reflected their own experiences, like going to the beach or Disneyland, while others focused on fantasies they hoped would someday be a reality, such as riding in Santa’s sleigh to help deliver toys. Sometimes the adventure seemed to take pieces of familiar storylines from children’s literature. Roman contributed one such trip the bunnies took by saying, “The bunnies became real, and they went out and got lost in the woods. A wolf came to eat them, but the bunnies ran away and built a house out of wood. They made a rocking chair out of wood. Then they rocked and rocked to sleep,” alluding to themes from traditional fairy tales.

One week we read Du Iz Tak? by Carson Ellis, a book the author wrote in a made-up bug language. The children invented what they thought the English translation of the text would be. For example, Arnold interpreted the title as “It is Growing,” as the illustrations portray a growing plant as the center of attention. This story includes a lot of dialogue between the insect characters in their unique language, and we found children eager to construe the meaning of the bugs’ words. The pictures portrayed a flower growing from a seed, blooming and then eventually losing its petals as it withers away. The children thought the bugs’ conversation described this life cycle and lent their interpretations of the process to provide the dialogue. 

As we read the story using West AM children’s words, we realized how enthralled they were when their additions to the story became part of the book. The more we used the children’s words to tell the story, the more we saw children being thoughtful and creative with their language and enjoying the storytelling process. Furthermore, the teachers found that we were modelling the idea that stories can be varied and that we have the freedom to write our own versions of stories—an idea that could also be helpful in children’s dramatic play scenarios. We also saw that children were learning to respect their peers’ ideas as they listened with attention to the different perspectives being incorporated in the story. They were curious to see what their friends had added to the text. Using children’s language and drawings to build up the storylines of existing books throughout the week encouraged them to be expressive and descriptive with language.

Yet another week we read Tuesday by David Wiesner, which has just a few words but extremely detailed illustrations of frogs floating away on lily pads on a Tuesday evening. Children were intrigued by the pictures and came up with the storyline of how “gravity went away” and so the frogs started to fly. After the basic storyline was set, the children were very interested in adding dialogue or a perspective about what each frog was thinking or feeling based on the character’s facial expression and body language:

Sky: “Why am I not flying?” 
Sky: “I am higher than you!” 
Rowan: “Gosh this is fun!” 
Luna: “I am flying away to the moon!” 
Luke: “Actually, I am flying to Luna. That’s another name for moon.” 
Kristina: “I want to go zip lining!” 
Roselyn: “Oh, no! We are coming down! Gravity is coming back” 

Children who prefer stories to be grounded in facts seemed to be trying to grasp the imaginative ideas narrated by peers. Aszi said, “It’s not a real story. Gravity has not gone away. If gravity really went away, then the trees and everything would be floating. Maybe it’s just magic in a story.” It was interesting for teachers to see how each child’s personality added a new dimension to the story. Luke, who is very invested in superheroes, said, “This frog wants to wear a cape because he thinks he is Spiderman now. He is spinning a web to chase the dog away.” Children closely examined the pictures and described the small details in them to expand the story. 

We combined the reading of Pancakes for Breakfast by Tomie de Paola with a weeklong cooking project that allowed the children to experience some of what the characters did in the story (but without such difficulties acquiring the necessary ingredients). This helped them to take the perspective of the main character as she worked to make herself a tasty breakfast. Afi’s contribution to the book’s text seemed to reflect his own feelings, “They are excited to make pancakes. It’s going to be yummy!” To further expand the children’s understanding of what the character was experiencing, one of the teachers brought in a butter churn so the children could make butter for snack time and go through this time-consuming process. Then at snack time, the children had a chance to feel the satisfaction the main character felt when she was finally able to sit down to a plate of pancakes with butter and syrup, and they incorporated that sense into the words they provided for the final pages of the story. 

Our journey of nurturing and respecting the children’s voices and ideas through storytelling in conjunction with a familiar book engaged the group week after week. One morning, Joshua, who had been listening to audio books at home, said, “My favorite part of a book is listening to the story, instead of seeing pictures.” This made the teachers curious to discover the children’s preferred book formats. We posed the question to the children in West AM, “Why do you like picture books?” Johnny aptly said, “Seeing pictures is more interesting, but I also like adding words, and making up a story is really cool. I can make them funny.” Trying to convey his excitement about adding his own text to stories, Arnold said, “It feels like shooting cannon balls into outer space.” Sky added, “In picture books, you can make nothing into something.” This conversation led us to investigate, via voting, whether the children liked books with words and pictures, books with just words or books with just pictures. We collected the their responses and recorded them on a chart. We found out that though a majority still preferred books with words and pictures, some of the older children preferred pictureless books. “My favorite part is listening to the story and imagining all the pictures,” one of these older children said.

Teachers laminated copies of the children’s versions of the books and placed them in a basket near the bookshelves for the children to revisit, which they did often. Many knew the parts they had contributed to the story, and as they flipped through the pages they giggled when they came across the humorous additions they had made. As we wrapped up this project for the quarter, we found that children’s understanding of narratives grew through this experiment, and teachers had discovered more interesting ways of telling and extending stories with a group of young children.