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Once Upon a Time: Storytelling at the Heart of Early Literacy Development

As early childhood educators, one of our many great privileges is to witness, guide, and celebrate children’s early literacy development. From sharing in the blossoming of spoken language in infancy to documenting their first experiences making marks on paper as young toddlers, to the beloved picture books read aloud in our preschool classrooms each day, we play an integral role in supporting children’s journey toward becoming readers and writers. Beyond discussions of kindergarten readiness, this process is – in the grandest sense possible – an essential part of our humanity.

Based on decades of high-quality research, we know that our approach to early literacy instruction must strike a balance between offering opportunities to develop foundational knowledge and skills while striving to nurture children’s innate and deep love of learning. I believe that the younger children are, the more we need to emphasize the latter; in order to preserve and grow children’s curiosity about making meaning through written and spoken language, they need to experience the process as enjoyable, empowering, and connected to their lives.

So our question as educators becomes: how will we support children’s natural interest in early literacy learning?

At Wild Lilac Child Development Community, story circle is a core component of our early literacy curriculum. The aesthetic and rituals of our story circles are influenced by the Waldorf tradition of puppet show-style oral storytelling. It is a daily, community-building practice led by a teacher that helps create a culture of storytelling in our classrooms that is social and relationship-based. In the circle, story elements like plot, setting, character, narrative structure, and more are introduced. Children encounter and integrate these elements in their own stories long before they learn to write their names or decode their first words.

While it’s perhaps best and easiest to learn about story circle by sitting in one yourself, here are some considerations to guide you.

How is the space arranged?

• Typically, a simple circle arranged around the storyteller.

What materials do we use?

• Fabric, felt, and silk scarves

• Animals and people

• Blocks

• Natural materials like pine cones, rocks, flowers, and sticks

Where do the stories come from?

• Original stories, as well as faithful and alternative retellings of folk tales, fairy tales, and stories inspired by children’s literature.

How do children participate?

• Before the story, children may help gather and set up materials and share ideas with the teacher.

• During the story, children become an audience; the emphasis is on looking and listening closely.

• Discussion about the story often takes place afterward, during breakfast or at morning meeting: “What do think the fox was feeling when she was excluded? How would you have solved the problem?”

Creating a dedicated space to organize and display storytelling materials in your classroom, like a block shelf, offers children the ability to access them independently in order to tell their own stories. Frequently we see children retell the morning story throughout their days, but it doesn’t take long for children to share original tales as well.

There are a great variety of ways children can help develop this part of your curriculum. Embarking on nature walks to collect materials they would like to add to the storytelling shelf, offering art materials like fabric, wood, or creative reuse items to build characters or props, and going on neighborhood walks to take photographs of places like local parks or businesses children may want to use as story settings are just a few of the interdisciplinary possibilities.

The practice can also be used in very direct ways to support social-emotional learning in your classroom. At Wild Lilac, teachers often practice social storytelling where we offer a story about everyday conflicts like excluding in the context of a story that allows children to step back and engage in reflection, critical thinking, and collaborative problem solving both as they watch the story unfold and in the discussion that follows.

Through this inclusive, accessible approach to oral storytelling, children develop self-confidence and quickly see themselves as authors at an early age. Story circle is a wonderful practice to help build a community of young storytellers; please reach out to us at Wild Lilac if you would like to learn more.

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