2.3 : Stories and Culture

We are natural storytellers, and that is no mistake: we have been doing it since we were babies.  When we work with young children, we need to remember that they are trying to figure out what is happening around them: they are making sense of their world through observation, trial and error, interaction, and experimentation.

Let's explore a few ways that children's natural storytelling manifests itself.

Dramatic Play

Children are compelled to try ideas on for size through play, and we have all observed children engaged in dramatic play.  In dramatic play, young children create new worlds to explore for themselves, giving new roles to objects and to themselves, and others.  They explore what they know about the world, re-enacting familiar ideas and routines.

This may not be a written story; it may not have a beginning, middle, or end.  This is exploration of the world through story, with imaginary elements (the sick and the cold) as well as a world full of Anyas.  This is a rich experience for these boys to have: this is a topic they may explore when they have the space, time, and materials to make marks on paper.  A story of Anyas created alone, or along with a teacher, is not only a way to explore storytelling, but is an engaging entry point to storytelling: making a personal connection with the subject and the action.

Dramatic play, also known as pretense play, develops and changes over the course of early childhood.  Claire Golomb writes:

"Although all the basic elements of pretense play have been in place for some time, certainly from the age of 3, a real blossoming occurs in the development of themes, both real and more fantasy oriented, the number of players that can be accommodated in the scenario, the ability to enact multiple roles and maintaining complementary relations with the play partners." (p. 113)

As a young teacher, I wondered why children spent so much of their time in debate: who will be who, is it day or is it night, is it a good or a bad baby?  Seeing these behaviors over multiple groups of children, in different places in the world, illustrates that dramatic play is much more than story acting.  It is a vehicle for children to explore story in a way that is personal and connected with others.

Children's Mark Making

When children make marks on paper, they are creating meaning with their marks.  A combination of fine-motor and gross motor skills give children the ability to grip a mark-making tool, like a pencil, a crayon, or a paintbrush and control the stroke that they make.  Perhaps you have been with a two-year-old who makes a mark on paper, then later decides, "Its a snake!" based on what the line looked like at the end.  When we approach children's mark-making with an open and supportive attitude, they feel confident that their explorations are meaningful.  

Above, children use the same materials,together at the same table, to explore their own mark making.  There is no wrong way to approach materials, and children learn experimentation with mark-making materials.  Children find ways to play with communicating through mark-making.  Below, two Finnish friends from my classroom a few years ago create a mark-making game with sand.


Mark making can be a game, playful and child-led, showing us that children have an innate curiosity about how the world communicates.  They can connect on their own level, creating a deeper, more connected understanding through trial and error.

In the video below, O (age 3.5) decides on a story as he draws.  He reminds us that not all stories are planned with beginnings, middles, and ends: the stories of our youngest citizens unfold in real time when children are given the time and space to explore.


These lines and marks are dynamic, fluid, and changing - they are a story in action.  The child uses mark making to add new elements.  I see this as a precursor to what some primary school teachers do on Monday morning, asking children to draw their "Weekend News".  Children are able to represent an entire event in one still image, even if they are not necessarily drawing representationally.  As educators and caregivers, our ability to truly observe and listen can open our eyes to storytelling through mark-making, from markers on paper to sticks in the dirt.

Individual Differences

All of the children that we work with have stories to tell.  They may be telling them through dramatic play, through games they are inventing, through mark making, through block building: however they prefer to explore concepts about their culture and world.  It is up to the educators to find where those stories are naturally and meet children there.  In the final section of this unit, you'll use reflection tools to find the stories right now, and use that information to inform your next steps in your learning environment.