On World Book Day, the Many Reasons to Celebrate the Wonder of Story…

On World Book Day, the Many Reasons to Celebrate…

I recently started reading the Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe and on the first page of the book Iturbe writes a sentence that resonates deeply in terms of the work I’m currently doing. It reads, 

‘Each time someone stops to tell a story and children listen, a school has been established’.

(Iturbe, 2019, P. 1)

My recent Instagram live chat with Jelena Djokovic of the Novak Djokovic Foundation focused on how we can support children’s learning during this time of quarantine. Working together, we have been discovering and using some wonderful children’s books, and both feel passionately about how they can be used as a resource to build knowledge in a natural way.

I wanted to explain a little more, and in detail, about why I feel strongly about the use of stories as an effective tool. For those who wish to delve a little deeper into the idea, I will add a few links to articles of interest as well as a list of some of the books we’ve recently used with the children.

Stories aid in terms of learning because they:

  • – are inviting and engaging, capturing children’s attention and imagination.
  • – can be used in both a reciprocal and collaborative manner, with mutual engagement and dialogic interaction between the reader and the listener; and play and re-invention as children collaborate with each other.
  • – provide children with context and meaning (at times, we attempt to teach children concepts without providing them with context. Stories give us a framework on which to build learning, and act as a springboard from which to explore different ideas).
  • – are dynamic in that they are brought to life again and again through communication, discussion and dramatisation. Stories lend themselves to exploration, adaptation and play. 

Before the online chat, I read a lovely phrase written by Meghan Cox Gurdon in her book The Enchanted Hour (which happens to be one of the best books I’ve read In many years, offering, I believe, a life-changing perspective on reading for parents and teachers) on how children benefit when they and their parent (or carer/teacher) 

‘establish a positive pattern of relating while reading’ 

(Cox Gurdon, 2017, p. 80) 

I particularly like this phrase as not only is there the relation to each other in this two-way dialogue – this warm, bonding, nurturing time – to consider, I would propose that there is also an opportunity to relate new knowledge with existing knowledge, and new vocabulary with existing vocabulary. This relating, on all of these levels, leads to both positive interpersonal relationships, and a positive relationship with learning which aids in the building of and expansion of knowledge. 

As we read, and engage with story, we create a learning partnership with our children. We explore together, we jump off at different points together, we research together, we participate in – or even invent activities – together. To view our engagement with the children in our care as a partnership is crucial as, I believe, children sense when we are working with them in terms of investigation and discovery, and not simply feeding them information in a hierarchical manner, considering ourselves as superior and them as inferior.  Children, like us, love to feel that they are a part of something. We can help them to feel like a valued member of a learning team.

When we think of story or learning, some of us may picture children sitting quietly and listening as they take in information. I believe that it is necessary for us to challenge this mindset and to think of story and learning as interactive processes. The irony is that children are far more likely to remember concepts and ideas if the learning path is a little convoluted –  not quiet, sedate and carefully controlled – but rather stimulating and exciting. Our brains are wired to learn when we’re focused, active and joyful!

In terms of practically working with young children:

  • Take the learning off the page wherever possible

I’m sure we all remember periods of learning where we sang, acted, worked with peers, participated in sport etc. far more than we do times spent sitting at desks and learning statically.  This is because we were actively involved in the learning process. When we consider this personal experience, we can use it to motivate us to DO!, to create – to build, draw, craft, bake, rhyme, sing, act, dance, etc. In doing so, try to bear in mind that the focus should always be on the process and not the end product.  Our primary interest is not perfect artwork, crafts, or precise yoga poses. What we’re interested in is mixing the dough, moving the body, belting out the song, and learning together! When one lets go of the outcome and is truly focused on the process of learning, it is far less stressful for both/all parties. And it allows for everyone involved to be fully present. 

  • Strive to make the learning as sensorial as possible

The more engaged children are, the more they learn. Begin to think creatively about how many senses can be engaged as you learn. Say letters aloud as you write them, work with moveable numbers as you count them and add interesting sensorial objects to match symbol to quantity. Create letters with texture so that children can trace them with their fingers as they see and say them, jump numbers as you shout them, act out a life cycle, smell plants in nature as you explore them, smell and taste spices as you name and discuss them. Extend learning by creating a simple blindfold and match herbs by scent, food by taste or fabric by texture. The late Bev Bos, who was an advocate for play-based learning said, ‘If it hasn’t been in the hand and the body…it  can’t be in the brain’

  • As your child is learning, help them to make connections (Using The Very Hungry Caterpillar as an example)

‘Oh, there’s a leaf!…We jump in the leaves in autumn, don’t we? What colour are they then? Are they green like this or are they a different colour at that time of year? We’ve tasted that fruit, haven’t we?…We eat pickles…We make cupcakes sometimes…There were caterpillars in the garden, weren’t there? You had your face painted as  a butterfly…We saw a beautiful butterfly at the park…what did we notice about it?’

Link to what children already know, they love to ‘know’ things! Work to link the novel (new) with the known.

  • Add humour

As mentioned during our online chat, children remember more when learning is active, has meaning and is sensorial. What adds even more to learning is humour, silliness and fun. Humour is underpinned by flexibility and abstraction and aids in the development of creative and critical thinking,  And children love it when you laugh together – it is bonding – and they will remember exactly when you were funny and silly and went ‘off-piste’. Don’t be frightened to do this. At this time, some light-hearted humour is much needed!

  • Make room for choice

We do not need to attempt to use every book for learning. This is an opportunity for us to engage in the wonder of story with children, to enter into their world of exploration, not to begin to turn stories into tools of teaching.  As we model a genuine process of enquiry with a couple of books, gently asking whether the child would like to ‘jump off’ at different points, we provide them with choice, autonomy and agency on their learning journey. 

And we do not have to use every page or explore every idea. Your child may initiate a line of enquiry that leads you both down a different path to the one you’d envisaged. Joyfully walk that path, learning as you go, knowing that there will be countless opportunities to share knowledge with your child. What you’ll find is, that more often than not, there is no need to cajole or pressure children into exploration. If we model interesting learning processes often, if we really engage on their level and enthusiastically enter into play, children will spontaneously begin to act in the very same way themselves.

Jennifer Berke writing about the late Bev Bos for Community Playthings (2016) discusses Bos’ approach to books,

‘Although we should strive to read high-quality literature with children, the focus is not just on the content contained within the pages…In fact, Bev never thought it was important to finish a story. If a child wants to stay on the first page of a book, showing full engagement and asking a host of questions, then that is perfectly acceptable. It is the rich conversation that is important.’

(Berke, 2016, Let the Playing Commence! A Tribute to Bev Bos)
  • End on a high note 

In this way, children will want to revisit learning with you again and again. As you finish engaging, focus on what they’ve learned and what they know. Confidence is built through episodes of competence. As we recognise children’s competence and encourage them they, in turn, develop confidence. To encourage literally means to give courage so give children courage for the next activity each time you finish interacting with them.

  • Prepare the Environment

An important Montessori principle is the prepared environment, where practitioners work to ensure that the environment provides the children with the resources they need to learn. We can do this by swapping toys and books around in the evening, leaving out something we know the children will enjoy doing, or adding fresh activities to their learning space in preparation for the day ahead. 

We tend to think about the prepared environment in terms of layout and practical resources but part of the preparation is to look within, and to prepare ourselves to be joyful, open, and flexible in our thinking and agenda.

Remember that children are driven to learn, and we are their facilitators, their learning partners. Let’s take it one day at a time. If you experienced a  day fraught with difficulties, try to leave it behind and begin the next day anew. Afford the children a blank slate, without labels, and give yourself the opportunity to be a better facilitator of their learning. Start each morning with a full measure of grace for all!

As you read a book, consider different areas of learning: 

  • Knowledge and understanding of the world – can you learn more about the earth, and about nature? In The Very Hungry Caterpillar you can learn about which creatures lay eggs, then extend to which creatures don’t and how they reproduce, you can explore leaves picked outdoors, and draw their shapes or collect a few and colour over them to explore pattern.  You can explore the life cycle of the caterpillar in greater detail, you can look into butterflies and where and how they live.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar
  • – Is there mathematical knowledge to be uncovered? Maths is not only about counting but about concepts like size, shape, length, distance, weight, time, pattern etc. Also consider mathematical vocabulary like half and whole, more and less etc. When we begin to look, we will see mathematics in almost everything. Working with The Very Hungry Caterpillar you can work on lengths of caterpillars, shapes of eggs, shapes of leaves, number of items eaten, baking and cooking of foods the caterpillar consumed (using mathematical vocabulary and concepts), symmetry of the butterfly (combining art) etc. (Consider too the sequencing of a story. This is mathematical – what happened first, second, third etc. Reading and maths are  both sequential, and so simply having your child sequence a story and tell it to you is working on this. It’s also working on planning, logic and memory).
  • – Is there language to be learned? Is there new vocabulary that can be introduced within the context of the story? Never be afraid to use complex words and terminology. Link the new words with more familiar words and use them interchangeably to build understanding. Children will use the context to aid them in assimilating this knowledge. 
  • Creativity – Can you introduce music into your learning? A rhyme or song that links to your topic / learning will add fun and aid in memory.  
  • – Is there a way to introduce movement through drama – for e.g. 
  • – playing charades
  • – acting out scenes from favourite stories
  • – yoga
  • – different physical movements like hopping / jumping etc 
  • – A really lovely idea I recently discovered is to have your child act out the book as you read it. Children love this and it’s great for listening and attention, and for physical activity. Swap roles when you’ve  done this activity and let them be ‘teacher’ and ‘read’ or tell you the story, acting it out for them.
  • And always, and most  importantly, is there a way to focus on social and emotional learning? – Considering:
  • – How do the characters in the story feel? 
  • – How do we know they feel this? (Point out facial clues – use your tone to give them clues as you read). 
  • – What do they think? 
  • – What do we feel about what they feel and think?
  • – How might we feel if that were us? 
  • – What other feelings does the book cause us to feel?
  • – What does the story cause us to think about? 
  • – Use stories to foster theory of mind, empathy, compassion, understanding – always drawing out what is common to us all as human beings 

The cocoon phase in The Very Hungry Caterpillar is particularly relevant in terms of social and emotional learning at this time. The quiet, the change, the waiting…and the emergence of a new creature. Even with older children, this can be used to discuss the difficulties of this time, and how it feels to be ‘cocooned’ and shut away from the world. We can talk about how we cannot know when this waiting will end, but we can use the time to grow and to change…we can emerge from this time with a new approach, a different life and can create something of beauty. 

Please bear in mind that there is no right or wrong with SEL learning. If we adopt a right and wrong approach, the children will not share what  they really feel with us, rather they will consider what it is they think we’d like to hear and tell us that! 

Instead, allow them to express what the book brings up for them. Perhaps right now they can only focus on how difficult it is to be isolated and cooped up, and therefore express anger, fear and other seemingly negative emotions. Give them the freedom to do this. You may revisit the same book a litter later and have the opportunity to focus on different emotions or perhaps be able to use a different book to encourage a more positive outlook. You may not!  And in this case, your role is simply to listen and affirm the children’s feelings. Social and emotional learning is not an exercise in preaching but rather an opportunity to foster open, honest discussion about emotions, and the exploration of them.

  • Be accurate with your language

I wanted to include what I feel is crucial information on the use of accurate language in our relationships and work with children. When chatting with Jelena, she asked me where I was at the present time and I replied that I was on an island in the ‘middle of the Atlantic, between Africa and the States’. This was vague, and certainly did not lead people to understand exactly where I am located. My husband, who is a marine engineer and navigates the world by boat, watched the chat afterwards and laughed at my inaccurate response. To provide some clarity, the island is located in the Atlantic Ocean to the west of Portugal (approximately one and a half hours flight time) and we sit on the same latitude as Casablanca in North Africa. We are an approximate three-hour and 40-minute flight away from London.

That provides you with a far clearer picture as to where in the world I am!

Now consider this in terms of language. Cox Gurdon writes, ‘Language allows children to occupy the world, their castle, as owners. It means they can understand and describe things with texture and precision. It means that if a girl sees a dog or a squirrel, say, moving with great speed, she can describe what’s happening: is the creature darting or sprinting, racing or feinting, ambling or scampering? When something frightening happens, she can fine-tune her explanation: it was chilling, alarming, macabre, ghastly, daunting, or perhaps just unpleasantGradations of meaning matter, because they bring us closer to the truth’ (emphasis mine).

When we consider accuracy in terms of emotional language, we can reflect on our constant use of words like, ‘sad, happy, and cross’ with children when they are perhaps despondent, despairing, lonely, excited, ecstatic, agitated, frustrated or furious. The words that we provide them, at times, do not even begin to do justice to the emotions they feel. Margot Sunderland in Using Story Telling as a Therapeutic Tool with Children says, ‘parent-child, teacher-child or counsellor-child communications about feelings when only everyday language is used, are likely to be impoverished’. 

As we read and take in stories with their rich use of metaphors and imagery which aid in visualisation, we can begin to take the opportunity to build a vast emotion-based vocabulary. The use of metaphor, along with descriptive, accurate language will help children to develop the ability to recognise their own emotions and those of others, and to communicate their feelings effectively, pinpointing exactly where they are located on the emotional map. 

Take a look at the emotion word wheel below to further reflect on our often limited emotional vocabulary:

  • Embrace play

Play is children’s science. As children play, they are experimenting, investigating, hypothesising, inventing and re-inventing, in fact there are too many processes (on both a cognitive and an affective level) that occur simultaneously as children play to mention here. Trust that these processes are happening, There are also hormones such as oxytocin that are released as children are engaged, which work to calm and soothe them. 

Children’s play is their work so try not to be dismissive about it. As Piaget said,

‘Play is the work of childhood.’

You’ll often see young children in a nursery setting choose to sweep the floor or tidy up, voluntarily helping the adults…it is all learning and fun to them!

As we work, let’s try to keep in mind that we’re part of a global community. Yes, each one of us is unique, but we are also similar in our feelings and our struggles. Keep on connecting, communicating, and reaching out for help and advice. And remember that you do not need to know it all. After all, no-one does. 

As we continue to facilitate our children’s learning journey, and our own, let’s craft a story full of faith in their abilities, hope for the future and wonder at all there is to know. 

Once upon a time…



Websites to explore:

The Hungry Caterpillar Resource – Practical Ideas

  • The moon: research the moon together
  • A  little egg: consider which creatures lay eggs / which don’t  / shapes of different eggs
  • Leaves: types / shapes / textures – collect leaves from outside – trace around – shade over – try to draw etc – explore the different types of leaves on trees and why they differ
  • Caterpillars:  research facts about caterpillars / life cycle / draw / make  of segments / crafts / finger printing / finger painting  
  • Make a cupcake caterpillar! – to link to both the caterpillar and the cupcake 
  • Fruit: peel and cut safely together / think about taste and texture / skin / seeds  / make juice / bake apples and pears or plums / make a fruit salad /draw the fruit / print with it… try to be as ecological and economic as possible as you do so – possibly explore the fruit first and then cook it to avoid waste /count fruit / compare amounts  / do simple mathematics / add and  take away /sort fruit
  • List of food items eaten: bake a cake, a pie, a cupcake, prepare sausages for dinner etc.
  • Eating the leaf after all of the other food items: chat about healthy foods – how the things that grow in nature are the best for us / and full of goodness / make a plant-based smoothie together
  • Discuss categories of food like fruit and vegetables, dairy and pastries / sort foods in your kitchen together 
  • The cocoon: explore this together – look at pictures /  find out facts about the process / draw / craft
  • Butterfly: draw / craft butterflies / carry out symmetry activities for maths /research butterflies  

Books mentioned by Jelena:

A few of the lovely books we’ve recently used: