Storytelling with Art for Children
6 Conversation Prompts to Motivate Young Storytellers
Storytelling has been a method of communication between families and communities that dates back to the very beginning of time and has incredible benefits for children. Children explore their unique, creative voice and communicate those thoughts and feelings to others when telling stories. Stories help children make sense of the world around them, and when they tell stories, they can make sense of their experience within the world.
Storytelling was a constant in our frazzled family as my children were growing up, though not always in the way you'd expect. My oldest could narrate the most mundane events. A flashlight became a video camera used to chronicle the adventures of a younger sibling. A car ride was an opportunity to list everything, and I do mean everything, seen through the window. My youngest crafted stories of convenience — excuses really. Surprise messes were explained with almost plausible circumstances, none of which were observed first hand. I wanted more for them.
If only storytelling was as straightforward as, "Once upon a time ..." followed by a vivid, imaginative tale where the storyteller was as engaged as the listener. Storytelling can be challenging for children who have such wonderful imaginations but lack the vocabulary, verbal skills, or confidence to communicate those ideas to others. Storytelling with art is an excellent bridge for children between their imagination and stories. Simple things like paper and crayons or pavement and chalk can coax a story out of the most reluctant children. The tricky part is to get children to talk about their art and see the story they have created. I found the best way to do that is to ask open-ended questions and be patient for the answers. Here are some suggestions to get the conversation started.
1. "Wow, I really like ..." Begin by making a positive and specific observation about the artwork. Consider things like the colors chosen, the medium used, the amount of detail seen in the picture or any other feature you observe. By making a specific comment, children realize the artwork has your attention and you are engaged. As a result, they will be more willing to share a story from their artwork.
2. "Tell me about your picture." Follow your specific comment with an open-ended statement about the artwork which invites the child to begin their story process. Not all children will be comfortable with a prompt this general so you may need to follow up with a question about a specific element of the artwork. This approach may help children who need to ease into telling their story.
3. "That's so interesting. What about ..." Once children have started talking about their artwork, encourage them to add details to their descriptions. Asking specific questions at this point helps children deepen their connection with the picture and communicate details that bridge between the artwork and the story.
4. "What title would you give your picture?" By asking for a title, you help children consider the details and focus on the main idea of their artwork. The focus also helps children realize the story shown in their picture.
5. "What's happening in your picture?" The answer may be as simple as a statement describing the elements of the picture. Sometimes just asking children what is happening in their artwork is enough to start a story so vivid that they communicate details not even seen. Both responses are the beginnings of stories that can be coaxed along with more open-ended questions prompting children to reach into their imaginations. Some children may need more prompting than others. Be careful not to interrupt the storytelling with art if the communication is flowing freely. A story is being told and is now in the hands of the storyteller. Don't be discouraged if the story is short or doesn't go beyond what is seen in the artwork, storytelling is a skill that takes practice.
6. "What do you think happened next?" By asking what happened after their artwork, you are guiding children deeper into storytelling mode. As you're listening, it's important to stay engaged, but equally important to let the child tell the story in their own way. Some children may not be ready to look beyond the picture, but it is an excellent opportunity to share your thoughts and model storytelling skills.
At the end of the story be sure to give positive feedback. Share the elements of the story that you found interesting, or surprising, or fascinating, or frightening — you understand. Include positive feedback about how the story was told as well. Be specific in your feedback. Children appreciate hearing things like, "I loved how detailed your descriptions of the ___________ were, you made me think I was seeing the story," rather than the general statement, "Your story was nice."
Taking an interest in children's artwork and prompting them to tell the story behind it is a great way to develop storytelling with art. It's also an excellent way for you to connect with children and share some memorable stories of your own.
I'm glad I was able to encourage storytelling with art for my children. I'd say the years of chalk drawings on the driveway and the multitude of pictures decorating my walls, bulletin boards, and refrigerator were successful as my children are still telling stories with art — although using different mediums. My oldest has created an indie, narrative video game studio and the youngest, well if you view any of the videos on the website, you've seen his handiwork!