3.2 : Finding Stories in Materials

Children are constantly trying to figure out how the world works.  When they have the opportunity to manipulate the world around them - move the parts around - they have an opportunity to get a little closer to making personal connections with a big idea.

Offering open-ended materials is one way to offer children an opportunity to explore and articulate a story - while still keeping the work child-led.  The suggestions and examples that I offer in this part of the workshop are meant to inspire you to think about how a well-planned space can excite children about story exploration on their terms:  spaces and prompts where there is no wrong way to engage in the activity.


Open Ended Materials + Storytelling

When I was little, my Dad made me a dollhouse.  It was beige, and it had a wraparound porch; it had furniture that fit it just right.  The drawers in the little dressers opened:  it really was a miniature house.  I spent hours and hours playing with that dollhouse, making the characters interact with each other and rearranging the furniture.

There is nothing negative about having a toy that is meant to be used for just one thing - but it does start to feel like it is only meant to be used one way.  As an adult, I connect a little more with Phoebe's dollhouse.

When children start from scratch - or close to it - playing on their own terms from the start, they will explore the stories that they are the most curious about.  Offering children materials that allow them opportunities to explore stories independently is one way to give them the space to explore their own interests.  

There is no wrong way to explore the world through play.


Tabletop Prompts

When children are not accustomed to open-ended materials, there can be some barriers to starting play.  Children (and adults, too!) may see a tabletop of open-ended materials and ask, "What is this for?  What do you do here?"  So much of our lives are made up of stricter parameters than we realize - and this is especially true for children.  Think about my dollhouse above: there was only one way that it was considered appropriate to use the dollhouse.  I never considered subdividing a room with a wall of legos, or putting a strand of lights inside.  The things that came with the dollhouse were meant to be used with it.  Looking back, I see the appeal of Phoebe's dollhouse: it is a whimsical and playful experience.

A tabletop prompt of curated materials is a great way to encourage children to explore stories independently.  It can take a few minutes - or even a few days - for children to warm up to the idea, but if we give children the space, they will find the stories.  

Watch the short video below to see an example of open-ended materials as a story prompt.  You'll notice that this is a windowsill : open-ended material prompts are a wonderful for little, unused spaces in learning environments.

The girls in the video are exploring the materials in a relaxed and open way; they are dipping their toes into some possible story lines and ideas.  They negotiate about action, and characters (just as they would in dramatic play), but in a more casual and accessible way.  The materials seem random - they are just little things collected by me on a lap around the classroom before the day began - but they have stories inside of them.

In the video above, children were prompted to play with collections of curated objects - in this case, circles.  The small objects demanded the children's attention and concentration.  T, who is playing in the video, is singing about Goldilocks as she creates what looks like a face; she is using a variety of languages to explore and express the story in a way that she understands.

These moments with materials pass us by all of the time.  It is easy to brush it off as kid stuff - a "vivid imagination" - but when we lean in and take the time to observe and listen, we find that we are surrounded by stories.

Discussing these examples with educators in the past, I have listened to the opinion that these are not stories: stories are more structured, and children learning about stories should offer them opportunities to think about beginning, middle, and end; climax and characters and story and plot.  I suggest that we think about stories in a more fluid way: the stories we recount to friends and family do not always have all of the "academic" elements of story.  

Finding the Stories

A traditional Early Childhood classroom has a portion of the day that is set aside for exploration - play time, choice time, center time - the names are different, but they have the same essential function: for children to engage in self-directed play.  Children choose what materials to engage with in the classroom at this time, and it is a wonderful opportunity for you, the teacher, to collect a few stories.

We'll step back for a moment here to remind ourselves of what a story is:  it is an account, a tale, a retelling, a myth, a fairy tale.  For children, it is a mix of recollection and imagination, making sense of the things in the world that they want to dig deeper into.  Above, T digs deeper into the story of Goldilocks, perhaps making an attempt to understand the characters more deeply.  Just as reading is more than deciding words, stories are more than rote memorization of the sequence of events.  Play allows for depth - and play with stories is deep and engaging learning about the things that are most salient to the individual.  A child may come sit next to T and make a picture, or explore a different story.  Neither child is wrong to engage with the materials the way that they are.  They are not going to be left behind because the stories don't have logical beginnings, middles, and ends.  These children are living story, every moment, as they learn about the world.

Below, you can download a PDF to print out and put on a clipboard for the next time children are independently engaged in play.  It breaks down what you might look for, and a few pieces to string together to make it easier to reflect on that work later on.  When we look for stories in their natural habitat, the factors won't always be the same.