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Spinning a Yarn - fuelling the imagination of our preschoolers

I am guilty of significantly over-using a word in the course of my professional life - engagement (or engaged).  I don’t feel particularly bad about this – I’m just aware people probably think my vocabulary is very limited!  I honestly don’t think there’s a more important word in learning (or in work for that matter).  I believe anyone is likely to have a better, more productive learning experience when they are truly engaged.  We’ve all been in lessons or training that have felt like the exact opposite.  I remember attending one particular three-day course where I literally tallied each minute of the final day on my complimentary notepad with my complimentary pen.  I would have rather been anywhere else – suffice to say I didn’t feel the materials on that day were particularly relevant to me.

Typically developing children of preschool age are at an amazing stage in their learning journey.  There shouldn’t be anything formal in their education they need to get concerned about– they are only limited by their imagination.  It is our role to capture their imaginations, to engage them completely, when it comes to the world of reading and, in particular, storytelling – ‘spinning a yarn’.  This is not to say that there aren’t lots of opportunities to start discussing initial letter sounds, or to gauge a child’s understanding by asking certain questions – but as with anything we do in the early years, this should be considered on a case by case basis.

I’ve spoken in an earlier article on pre-reading ideas for very young children, about the importance of the interaction opportunities that story time provides.  For babies and children with significant learning needs, the physical closeness and warmth of sharing a ‘story’ is hugely important.  Providing a level of cosiness continues to have value when settling down for a story with a preschooler - and it is a cosiness that many adults still desire when they settle down with a book.  It doesn’t have to be this way but my first bit of advice for lighting the touch-paper for a brilliant story session would be to consider this carefully.  A quiet space and whispered words can be so powerful.

There are a million amazing books out there for all levels of learning – but often the best responses come from stories that have never been written down – because you are making them up as you go along!  The concept is simple – the likelihood is that the three or four year old who is currently snuggled up to you is someone you know pretty well.  You know what makes them laugh.  You know what they talk about all the time.  You know what makes them excited, you even know what might seem a bit scary to them.  If you play your cards right, for the next 5-10 minutes this little one will be hanging on your every word as you spin your yarn.  Even if the cards you play don’t quite hit the mark, we learn from their response and we take our story down a different path (just like when we set up an activity that goes ‘unexpectedly’!)  Admittedly the thought of doing this strikes fear into some people: ‘I could never do that!’ being a response I’ve had more than once.  Like most aspects of living or working with preschoolers, it’s important that if at all possible, you forget the fact that you are a grown adult with any ability to feel embarrassed.  When you do this and tune in to the child, then everything becomes a lot easier and more natural.


So, where do you start with your yarn?  Here’s a couple of ideas that tend to work well:image.png


“You’ll never guess who/what I saw yesterday…….”


“You won’t believe this……” (especially when followed by “no, I can’t say”.)


Or just a simple “I’m going to tell you an amazing story”, or the classic “A long, long time ago….”


It works particularly well if the subject matter is something that is topical – maybe you’ve been to the beach that day – sounds like a pirate story could be coming, or maybe one about The Fastest Crab in the West?  Once you get going it can be almost as much fun for the storyteller!

Sometimes the best stories are told on location – I think a walk through the woods is a perfect time to tell a tall tale.  You are surrounded by a wealth of starting points – it could be the giant rock you find, or the strange shaped tree.  Just be careful it doesn’t get too scary!   

Story telling can also be a helpful distraction.  Most of us have been in the situation where a preschooler is really struggling to move on from an emotional moment, and the tears just won’t stop flowing.  Once it’s become apparent that on this particular occasion a cuddle just isn’t going to sort the problem, then why not try a silly story.  Last week when my son had a bump and struggled to stop the waterworks, it was a pumping purple hippo who went past the window that turned the tears into giggles.

One of the best bits of introducing storytelling, is when the child turns the tables and gets the confidence to tell you a tale of their own.  Invariably it will take a very similar format to your stories, but just be a bit more ridiculous – and of course the child will find their own stories ten times funnier.

As long as you are engaging the child you are with then you’re doing something right.  To give a preschool child a love of story telling will hopefully mean that reading becomes a lifelong pleasure. And there’s no need to stop when they start school – I know children who are 9 or 10 who still love to snuggle up to Grandad to hear all about knights in shining armour.  Why not try spinning a yarn next time you have a spare five minutes with a little one? You never know, you might be the next Julia Donaldson! 






Stephen Kilgour
Stephen Kilgour worked at Cherry Garden School, an outstanding specialist school in London, for 11 years, 7 of those as Deputy Head Teacher and Early Years Lead. He is now a SEND Advisor and Outreach Teacher at Tapestry. He lives in Newcastle with his wife and two young children.

Edited by Jules

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I loved creating stories with my nursery children! I used to have a 'Story box' made from a decorated shoe box, and I used to pop in a few items that could be used, by the staff or the children, to prompt storytelling. I'd change the contents frequently; it could be a feather, sparkly stone, a piece of interesting wood and a key. It was wonderful to see groups of children take this box and squirrel themselves away in a homemade den and get storytelling. 🙂

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