The Gift of Story by Kerry Brokaw

One of the greatest gifts I ever received as a mother was the use of therapeutic storytelling in the raising of my children.  From small squabbles or tantrums to moving to a new town to the death of a grandparent to just needing a quiet meditative listening time for all of us, story was my ally. Story gave me the confidence to meet whatever came our way, and opened the door for peace and grace to enter.

Nancy Mellon, who is a masterful storyteller, therapist and author, introduced me to the three-minute therapeutic story, letting our inner storyteller tell the tale with no preconceived plots or twists or finale. For anyone wishing to tap into the wellspring of story, let us begin with the basics of this method of storytelling for your immediate use.  First, know that each one of us is inherently a storyteller, and that our inner, intuitive storyteller in the humble loving service of children is our most trusted guide in the telling of our tales. 

First, feel a quiet place within you.  Perhaps you can distance yourself entirely from the situation for a while, away from distractions (if possible.) If you are at home, you might light a candle to set the story mood. Consider briefly the nature of the situation and what, if anything, needs to be addressed. Allow your thinking (and judging) brain to take a rest.  Instead, begin the story simply yet profoundly with quiet listening and breathing.   Relax deeply and listen entirely with your heart.

Then settle in with the age-old “Once upon a time…” or with a gentle introduction before that–“I have a story for you today”– or–“There is a story that must be told…” then, “Once upon a time…” or “Long ago there was…”

You might sense water, air, fire, and earth and consider how a setting or scene that holds the energy of one of these elements might mirror what your child is experiencing at the moment. Begin there. Any flightiness of the child, for instance, can appear as an image, “There once was a blue bird who lived in a tidy nest in a forsythia bush …Each morning the bird hopped to the edge of his nest, opened his wings, and flew up to a high branch in the red maple tree…” Perhaps the bird will be central, perhaps peripheral to the story, a part of the prelude, the way the story comes into being. Weather may play a part, reflecting a struggle your child is experiencing.  The bird buffeted about in a rain storm may have to search for shelter until the morning comes – or until the warm sun comes out, glistening on each leaf and branch and drying the little bird’s feathers… The warm sun after the rain transforms the inner life of the child as he or she is listening…just as the dragon who is lighting ferocious fires everywhere learns to use his fire for the good — the dragon is so happy to light the cooking fire or the fire that brings warmth to the people. Or perhaps you create a story about an angry little squirrel who finds delight in delivering nuts to an old squirrel.

Our stories can “meet” a child where he or she is emotionally, and transform a “negative” emotion or behavior into its more positive counterpart.   Many of our stories may be – or seem to be- very simple–but often, upon reflecting on one’s own story, much more is revealed, and there are deeper meanings that come into play.   Most importantly, your child feels “met”/heard/loved/understood. The lilt of your voice, your closeness and presence all bring the child’s heartrate down (yours too.)  The child’s breathing also becomes slow and regular, meditative. Your story will feel like a gift, and your focus and attention and striving and love will be a genuine healing balm.

Many years ago, I found myself with my children on a remote beach in the off-season–two daughters (ages 3-1/2 and 5) walking, infant son in a pack on my back. We walked for a mile-and-a-half and were just turning around when the two young walkers “collapsed” onto the sand, crying that they could go no further.  With no human beings in sight, and no other recourse, I turned to Story. We sat huddled together by an old driftwood log, looking out to sea… I took a breath and began a story that was more literal than usual (usually I am careful not to make the story an obvious representation of the child or situation, often employing animals and changing other elements…). This time it was a small boy who could not use his legs due to an illness…. he was sunny and positive–he strove to do everything that his family members could do, and one day he found he could start using his legs again with the use of prosthetics.  The children were so inspired that they leapt up with,  “Let’s RUN, let’s play ‘run from the waves’ as we go!”  We laughed with joy–this story had helped all of us!  Interestingly, I could have told a story about a gull with a broken wing… or an injured crab or a stranded young seal – who waits alone until the tide shifts and the soothing waves wash over it and bring it home to the sea… But on this day–out there in the sand, so far away from the car, I began my story, trusting my inner storyteller…. and It began with  “There once was a small boy…” so, I “went with it.”  Any one of the versions would have worked… it is just the one that I told on that day, in that place. 

Sometimes we are not addressing a perceived need, but just telling a story for the joy of it.  Children love to hear stories about their parents’ childhood. I even told one that my mother told me. My mother passed away but I can still tell her stories.  I would begin with, “When your grandmother Mimi was a little girl, she and her brothers built a fort out of mud and sticks and marsh grasses. They asked their mother, your great grandmother, if they could spend the night in the fort, and carried out blankets and pillows and settled in as darkness fell… All night long they heard the ‘zzzzzzzz’ of mosquitos, and  ‘zzzzz Swat! – zzzz Swat!’ and the ‘PLOP,PLOP,PLOP’ of clumps of mud falling. ‘Plop….Plop…Plop….zzzzz…Plop….’ In the morning, they gathered their blankets together and walked slowly up to their house. They quietly ate the pancakes their mother had made, scritch scratching their forks on their plates. They carried their dishes off to the sink, then trundled off to bed and slept ALL DAY LONG…” My children loved that story– just a simple tale of a timeless adventure that happened so long ago. You might tell a short tale from a recollection of picking apples and making applesauce, building a swing, making a sand castle at the beach and fortifying it with a moat as the waves came in around it.  Children love to hear about you!

Puppetry is another vehicle for story. There are many varieties of puppets, from hand held to hand and finger puppets to stick and rod puppets and marionettes. I have used mostly hand-held needle-felted puppets and silk marionettes, but little figures in one’s home can also be employed to tell the tale. (How about, “There once was a very old leather shoe…!”)  I encourage parents and children to tell stories with the child’s stuffed animals….”Once there was a little teddy bear who loved to sit high on a freshly puffed pillow after the bed was made….” or “who loved to do somersaults …” or “who loved to walk in the field and look for clover and honey…” You can imagine many delightful scenarios for your child’s beloved dolls and other playthings.

One day a colleague came running into my pre-kindergarten classroom asking if I had any wool-felted goat puppets for “The Three Billy Goats Gruff” story she wanted to tell.  “No, but I do have some fluffy white carded sheep’s wool.” (It could have been little balls of yarn, or cotton balls, or pinecones…)  I gave her three clumps of the fluffy wool “fleece.” She reported later that the children never questioned the lack of detail in the fleece puppets.  In their actively-engaged imaginations they saw goats walking across the wooden bridge (a branch) to the green pasture on the hillside (green cloth and silk draped over an upturned bowl formed the hillside…). SO–know that everyday objects can become the characters in your puppet plays… and, with your inner storyteller telling the tale, or retelling an old tale you are familiar with, such as “The Three Billy Goat’s Gruff,” there is little you require besides a deep breath, a playful spirit of wonder, and a few moments of time.

Waldorf Kindergarten teacher Diane Fitzgerald told the same very simple, charming story about a little turtle each week in her parent-child class. She walked the little wood-felted turtle slowly along a driftwood log set on a blue cloth on the floor. Slowly, melodically, she would say,  “The little turtle…walked…along the log…and TIPPED… UP-…side…Down.”  Eventually she added a tissue paper butterfly who flew down and touched “noses” with the turtle.  The two- and three-year-old children were mesmerized by this same two- or three-sentence tale week after week.  

For wonderful seasonal story ideas and for integrating puppetry into storytelling, look up Suzanne Down’s Juniper Tree Puppetry.  Suzanne’s newsletter includes directions for how to make needle-felted puppets to accompany each story.

One bedtime story idea is to choose an animal, wild or domestic, and describe moments of the animal’s day, ending with it snuggling into its den/crate/nest at night. Let us take a young fox, for example– “There once was a little red fox who played all day on the rocks and mosses by his den while his parents hunted nearby for food.  He wrestled with his brothers and sisters, tumbling around in the tall grass. He chased after mice and dandelion seeds, and napped in the warm sun, his little fluffy tail twitching now and then when a fly came by.  As evening came, all the little foxes scampered into their den…. ate what their mommy and daddy had brought them to eat, curled up and fell asleep, breathing so deeply, their little bellies moving up and down, and slept all night long…”

Night is the time to “unwind” with calming stories–nothing to excite or overwhelm, nothing scary to take into dream life. A reflective story of the child’s day told in reverse order is actually enough.  With my children we called it “Before This,” going back over the events of the day in a simple way, filling in the “tapestry of the day.”  I ended with, “and before that you were sleeping through the night and I was giving you a kiss and telling you I love you, just like I am now.”  This is the transition time into sleep life.  A predictable nighttime rhythm with settling, safe stories allows them to let go of their day.  It is comforting for them to know that others are getting into bed as well: “All your friends are snuggled up in their beds,” or “All the little animals are snuggled up in their dens…the baby foxes are huddled together, breathing deeply…”

At the end of a story or puppet play, slowly and deliberately blow out the real or imaginary candle you lit at the start of your tale. Take a moment to observe a group of children in their collective meditative daze after a story is told: their breathing has slowed and deepened; their mouths are open; their eyes full of wonder.  You may create an ending such as the traditional, “And they all lived happily ever after”– or, “If you were to go to that place, they would be there now,” or, “And that is our story for today…” or, “And that is our story for tonight…” “And they have remained dear friends to this day.”  The child needs to feel that all’s well with the world.  And, lastly, often a child is still living in the story when it is over. Take a few breaths and wait a few moments while the child or children experience the wonder of the story. Gently covering a puppet play with silks gives a sense of breath and light around the story.

You do not have to be a master storyteller or puppeteer to nourish a child through story.   If you need a little nudge, tell them that you have a story that is just for them, a little story that you would like to share with them. Wait until your child is curled up in bed at night. Light a candle. Ring a little bell. Take a breath, and …begin….  “Once upon a time…”


Kerry Brokaw is a LifeWays graduate who lives and presents stories and puppet plays in Idaho.