“Wow,” I say to a little boy in my class. “Now that is an interesting picture you made. I’m so curious about it.”
He is holding up a paper with orange, black, yellow, and green scribbles. The little boy, “D”, looks at me with his giant blue eyes and says, “It’s a very dark forest and there is a scary animal that lives in there.” Looking sincerely frightened, he points to the middle of the paper. “Right there. See it?”
I look at his scribbles, nod, and probe for more information. “The scary animal has big teeth and there is a little boy who lives in the forest. He’s right there,” D points to a small dot on his drawing. “And the scary animal tries to eat him so the police have to come and put him in jail!”
D looks at me and I can tell he is watching to see my reaction. He is wondering if I believe this story. And, in turn, he is wondering if he believes it himself!
I match his wide-eyed expression and say, “That is a very scary forest! Good thing the police came to get that animal and save the boy!”
He pauses for a second, a little surprised by my reaction, and then smiles and continues on with his story, elaborating as he goes. It becomes more and more ludicrously full of gory details and drama of the boy getting chased, and ultimately the boy becoming brave, turning around to face the big-toothed, scary animal, until all is well again in the forest.
As D tells his horror story, holding up his drawing of scribbles for visual effect, the class is mesmerized. Their gazes alternate between him and his enthusiastic storytelling, and me.
“This is not a true story,” another boy in the class says flatly. The kids look at me, mostly knowing that of course he is right, but wanting a grown up’s reassurance.
I just smile.
The 5 year old imagination is truly a fascinating thing. The fine line between reality and fiction remains a constant tension for kids this age. It is a time of fearlessness and fearfulness all wrapped up in one little, bursting-with-energy-and-exuberance person.
Story telling is an effective and flexible way for kids to express their biggest fears and decide on an outcome that feels right to them. It is a safe and fun way for kids to take something scary and mold it into something manageable.
On paper and in their imagination, they can take control of that scary animal (or whatever) and smash it down to size! They can make themselves all-powerful and brave in their stories. Subsequently, they gain mastery of their fear. Not to mention the myriad opportunities for literacy skills, sequencing, and narrative development.
A little girl in my class recently told her own story about a “naughty princess” who basically ransacked her mother’s castle by knocking over furniture and breaking things. The naughty princess’ mother was quite upset, as one could imagine. But then the naughty princess decided she would only be naughty for one more day and then she turned into a good princess.
When the little girl finished telling me her story, accompanied by an elaborate 3d picture of a castle, she smiled contentedly.
In her story, which she read to me with gravity, she was able to let herself be “bad” and then get redeemed in the end, no questions asked. It was a wonderful exercise for this little girl to “try out” being bad in a way that was inconsequential. It’s like this story helped her get it out of her system, and more importantly, let her be “bad” just temporarily. She didn’t have to carry that “badness” around too long.
Our storytelling project, which came about organically as I happen to have a class full of master storytellers this year, will be an ongoing initiative this year in my classroom. I look forward to the tales of scary monsters and mischievous little girls and all sorts of other adventures from the mind of the 5 year old.