Storytelling Matters

The Live Art and the Power of Words

Archive for the month “April, 2013”

iPads Notwithstanding, Talk to Your Children

It’s all over the internet this week. A four-year old child in England is being treated for iPad addiction.

According to various sources, she is not alone. Many young children spend four hours a day playing with electronic devices. Commentary about this is flying around the web like angry birds are flying across screens in the chubby hands of toddlers.

Similar discussions probably erupted with the dawn of the television age as well. And that is why a storyteller wants to pipe up now.

The arrival of television coincided with a dramatic decline in oral storytelling. People stopped sharing live stories in community with others in favor of hours in front of a television. Many people have never heard of storytelling. That is why there was (and is) a resurgence in the art.

Barry and I saw this in action when we went to rural Jamaica many years ago to learn about traditional Caribbean storytelling. Instead of the romantic image of tales told by fires on moonlit beaches, we encountered people getting their stories from glowing boxes in their kitchens. Television service arrived in that part of the country 5-10 years before we did, and storytelling was gone, at least for a time.

Today, we are lucky to live in a time of momentous electronic innovation, making the era of television’s birth, by comparison, a mere blip on the screen of history. And with the brilliant onward march of technological change, comes other sociological change. But I ask you: do we dare lose those things we know while embracing others that we are uncertain of?

Storytelling has been part of human life for thousands of years; it endures for many reasons. A pertinent one here is that oral interaction is important for children’s brain development. (For an online article that mentions this, see, but do also check out books by Jane Healy for more detail).

Children need to be spoken to. They need to hear words uttered by human beings. Words soaked with emotional content, words that have meaning. Telling live stories can give children what they need. It strengthens their connection with the teller, with language, with humanity, and with other listeners. Storytelling matters.

It is my fervent hope, whether parents allow young children to use electronics or not, that they make time to talk to their children, sing to them, and tell them stories. Looking into the eyes of children as they listen to stories is a visual vortex more engaging than the dazzling digital delights of an electronic gadget. They will feel the same way too.

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Copyright 2013 The Storycrafters. All rights reserved.

Why is Storytelling Therapeutic?

One of our great privileges is to work with psychiatric patients on an inpatient, locked unit of a hospital. Clients are committed for a jumble of reasons – psychosis, depression, substance abuse, suicidal behavior, anxiety, aggression – and like a cook’s palette of herbs and spices, any and all of those issues can be mixed and matched, creating complex challenges for patients and clinicians alike.

So what do we do with such an eclectic group? We sit around a table, tell a few stories, and talk about them.

Recently, the activities director on the unit asked us for a brief, written summary that explains why storytelling is therapeutic. These are the words we shared with her.

Storytelling is a seed for growth and a balm for healing. Within every story are characters who mirror human struggle, strain with human emotion, and take human action. Because humanity in spoken stories touches the minds and hearts of listeners, live storytelling opens doorways to their inner worlds. During storytelling sessions on the unit, conversations with patients erupt about many things: emotions; difficulties; communication skills; problem-solving; coping, and; society’s perception about troubled souls, to name a few.

The sessions are effective because storytelling is done live. To accommodate the enormous variety of clinical issues, different tales are told each time. We vary telling style and story content in response to what we observe in listeners. Sometimes we stretch story moments or swap images; sometimes we tenderize the narrative or skip parts. Like word tailors, we adapt the text to measure, striving to make the best fit for the patients.

Best of all, stories contain healing images that can be taken home and remembered as beacons of light in life’s storms. To quote one middle-aged patient after hearing a story about a broken pot that was valued because it was broken: “I will never forget that story for the rest of my life.”

For these reasons and more, storytelling matters to those who hurt and hunger for inner peace.

They Should Have Fun

Last week, Barry and I had a little surprise while visiting an elementary school. It wasn’t a pop quiz, but it did make our eyes pop quizzically.

As professional storytellers, we work with every age range – adults, children, teens, families – in almost any place where people gather (including palm tree lined beaches). But in springtime, we often find ourselves in schools, where we usually know what to expect. But on that day, in that school, something was different.

While getting the sound system organized on the stage in the gym, the principal came in to greet us. We were delighted. Rarely do we meet principals in the flesh; they are often in meetings or stashed away like good wine for special occasions.

This principal looked like a male principal archetype:. Dark pants, button down shirt, belt that had more to do with decorum than function. He walked with the relaxed yet sure gait of a leader who feels at home in his skin and in being a leader. He greeted us with a warm smile and hand shake.

After niceties were swapped, we asked him if there were specific school topics that he wanted us to address in our show. Character education “words of the month,” particular literary connections, or social studies themes are often requested. With a spunky, yet earnest glint in his eye, he said, “Forget about that stuff! I want those kids to have fun.”

Have fun. That is a phrase I wouldn’t expect in a Principal’s Conversation Starter Handbook. I was dying to see what Barry was thinking about it, but I didn’t want to be obvious. Keeping my head still enough to win a gold medal in an Olympic game of freeze tag, my eyes migrated to the left. They stretched so far that I feared that one eyeball would sever its relationship with my optic nerve and rudely tumble from my face like a marble rolling off a table. It turned out that Barry was looking at me in exactly the same way. So much for subtlety and the sideways glance.

When our eyes connected, Barry was gazing at me with two dark and shining question marks. I turned to the principal and asked, “Did you say you want them to have fun?”

He nodded and said, “These kids have so many things that they have to do, so many should’s and musts. Children need to play. I want these guys to have a blast with you. That’s all.”

Wow. We haven’t encountered a principal like him lately, one willing to admit that there are too many pressures placed on youngsters. Here was an educational administrator suggesting that children have opportunities in school to revel in the lightness of being.

It’s not that I believe educators forget this. Regulations and extensive testing have tied the hands of teachers, forced learning to fit into a box, and made the fun of learning less of a pedagogical imperative. This is the complaint we have been hearing again and again from teachers. And this is what made the news just days after our school visit.

According to The Albany Times Union, the school board in Saratoga Springs is sending a message back to New York State saying that enough is enough with testing. My take away from the article is that educators in many different areas want to teach to hearts and mind, not to the tests.

And now, back to our principal. He wanted his students to have fun. We gladly honored his request, but… we did nothing different than what we usually do. We selected stories that were right for the mood of the audience and the age of the students. The tales had laughter, surprises, and interesting images. Educational themes of all kinds were threaded throughout, along with the developmental good things that oral storytelling offers to listeners for: brains, language, emotional intelligence, memory, and listening skills. All of that and more happened, and everyone had fun.

Storytelling makes learning fun, even when there are tests and standards. The students had fun that day in the multi-purpose gym-a-torium, just as the principal wanted, and just as they always do when they hear stories told.

We are so glad that educators are standing up for the teaching they want to be doing, like the principal we met one day last week.


Copyright 2013 The Storycrafters. All rights reserved.

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