I’ve been out ‘on tour’, sharing one of Michael Morpurgo’s (War Horse author) incredible stories ‘I Believe in Unicorns’ which my company has adapted into a solo theatrical storytelling performance. The show’s been seen by over 78,000 people nationally and internationally, but I continue to be amazed and delighted by the reactions of both adults and children. The story draws the audience in and I see them leaning forward, gasping, laughing, crying. I know that this is testament to a great story (hopefully well told!) and to our deep longing for stories.
Stories really do feed and nurture us, offering us an opportunity to relax and listen, be drawn in and transfixed. Stories give meaning to our lives and offer us a deeper understanding of our (and others) culture and history.
As a parent or grandparent, the time spent sharing a story with our children is one of the most rewarding things that we can do. I think this is particularly true at bedtime, snuggled under the covers, in the half light, when we can draw in close, at the end of the day, for a special moment together.
Often when I’m teaching oral storytelling, the issue of lack of confidence is one of most significant barrier to telling a story by heart rather than from a book. Whilst I do love reading from a book, a delightful picture book or a chapter from a gripping and well written novel, there is something extraordinary about putting the book down and opening the space between you, the teller, and the listener. The best way to build confidence, in my experience, is to practice, to dive in and give it a go! Your child will most likely help you as their imagination may well be more active than yours. Imagination is like a muscle, the more you use it the stronger it becomes. It’s a joy to share a spontaneous story together, for them to listen to your favourite childhood fairytale or hear a biographical story about your own childhood – children particularly love to hear about our childhood.
Children benefit from a rhythmic life as this creates secure foundations for their growing and learning. Rhythm allows them to feel protected and held so that trust and confidence can grow. Rhythm facilitates learning about words, sounds and language formation. Repetition of words, ideas and skills is important for early brain development. Rhythm establishes order whilst repetition brings order out of chaos.
When we give our children a rhythmic (not regimented) bedtime routine they can feel safe: bath, brushing teeth, pyjamas, story and lights out… this allows the child to enter sleep with ease and relaxation.
I know from experience that sometimes children get very busy and active just before sleep, I often mistook this activity believing that my child needed to burn off more energy, however I learnt (painfully!) that this spiraling out happened when my child was overtired, over stimulated and out of rhythm. What they needed most from me at this time was to be helped to come back into themselves, to be quiet. I knew that the rhythm needed to be flexible, but my boundaries established and clear. This took time and effort on my part to do it kindly and with patience!
At the end of the day, if we’ve been working hard and want to take time for ourselves, it can be tough to get into the ‘story zone’, to really relax and enjoy it, but if we do find this time I believe that it can be as healing and beneficial for you as an adult as it is for your child.
Sometimes when I share stories in schools, teachers tell me it’s like being in a yoga session! Find this quiet place in yourself, speak gently and quietly, allow yourself and your child to sink into a spellbinding space just before sleep.
I suggest creating a ritual and a special atmosphere, for example singing a short song or lullaby (maybe repeated every day), finding a beautiful storytelling cloth (perhaps silk or cashmere) which is only for this occasion, gently spraying a few drops of lavender oil on the pillow or rug, bringing flowers or leaves from the garden – other rituals that suit your particular family – to signify this moment. I would also recommend that you don’t tell too many stories (stories are like meals, so you don’t want to stuff them too full!) ideally only one story, but you do need to be totally present, to offer this as a gift.
I used to light a candle in my daughter’s bedroom – there’s something magical and ancient about fire, even the size of a candle – then everything went quiet, with only the sounds of the story to be heard…..I finished with a lullaby and blew out the candle, tiptoeing out of the bedroom as her breathing deepened and she relaxed into sleep.
If you take time to share a precious bedtime story I believe you, and your children, will reap the benefits for many, many years to come.