The Power of Storytelling

By Helen Lumgair

The new year is often a time of deep reflection with many among us feeling the desire to find new ways of being.  This involves our imaginations: the visualisation of that which has not yet been realised.

A large part of this imagining, and a vital tool in terms of facilitating growth in our lives and in the lives of those around us, is the story process.

I acknowledge that it can be difficult to reconcile our notion of stories as tales heard as children or read in books with the ability to affect change on a deep level, however, scientific studies have repeatedly shown that we are altered by the stories we take in, and by those we tell. Even our resolutions employ story. Charles Duhigg, a former New York Times reporter and the author of The Power of Habit, when discussing new year’s resolutions, explains, “What is magical is our mind’s capacity to create new narratives for ourselves, and to look for events as an opportunity to change the narrative” (2018).

If story is indeed so powerful a galvanising force, how do we begin to use it to facilitate the personal and relational changes we wish to see?

I believe that it can be done by applying what I have termed a ‘story lens’ to our lives: a device through which emotional themes are magnified, essential details discerned and voices – including our own – amplified, in turn leading to greater degrees of clarity, empathy and understanding.

This lens causes us to view the stories that children (and other people) offer to us as sacred

And as we do so, we:

  • Facilitate the expression of story in all its many forms.
  • Listen: not for the purpose of responding but rather to gain insight.
  • Allow children to invite us into their stories as their audience or as a part of their play, playing according to their direction; never being invasive.
  • Restrain ourselves from intellectualising story offerings, that is trying to teach children concepts as they seek to express themselves but rather embracing wonder and whimsy.

Our responses to children’s stories are fundamental to the way the story unfolds as illustrated by this poem:

  • Act with curiosity but cautiously – asking ourselves, for example about the poem above:

‘Where has this story about a ladybird in a red jacket come from?’

‘Should I encourage the story to unfold further?’

A story lens causes us to view the stories we tell to and about others as sacred

We consider what types of stories we share with children:

  • Reflecting on the content: do they include and dignify all people? Do they celebrate differences and all people equally? Do they foster understanding and peace – of and in ourselves and in relation to others?
  • Reflecting on our facial expressions, body language and tone.

For example, if wishing to encourage others, considering whether we tell stories of growth and courage.

We have the opportunity when working with young children to craft growth stories daily – learning stories – of what they can do today as opposed to yesterday, and about what lies ahead.

We consider the story approach being used with colleagues and with parents.

  • When we see our fellow practitioners stuck in terms of practice, we can introduce fresh ideas through the unique stories we bring and collaborate to create new ways of working.
  • We can use stories we have learned from children in our care to help parents to appreciate their child’s unique development and celebrate their unique relationship

A story lens causes us to view the stories we tell ourselves as sacred

  • In terms of our own practice, we can consider the stories we’re telling ourselves and the language we’re using to address ourselves.

This is crucial because, as a mentor recently said to me, ‘We leak our stories’.

  • Montessori said that ‘The training of the teacher who is to help life is something far more than the learning of ideas. It includes the training of character; it is a preparation of the spirit’” (Montessori, 2007: 132) We can ask ourselves if we are preparing our character and our spirit through revisiting stories in our lives and assessing whether they’re helpful, hopeful, and constructive; perhaps in the process revising labels, judgements and ideas that no longer serve us or those around us and making room for new stories.

A story lens causes us to view stories as a safety device

  • There is much talk in the early years and about safeguarding. And stories are a vital part of this. There is the literal aspect of keeping children safe in terms of how closely we listen to them and the stories they tell which cannot be over-emphasized: the observance of body language, changes in narrative, the details of stories told etc.

But there are other elements in terms of children’s lives and their stories that we can consider.

  • The trauma specialist, Besel van der Kolk has said that that lived trauma essentially comes back as a reaction. Just this one statement demonstrates how essential it is for us know about the stories of the children and families we work with in terms of gaining insight into their behaviour and allowing us to respond based on a full and accurate picture of their past and current experience.
  • The other part of safeguarding looks again to how we treat the stories that children offer us. When we treat their stories as sacred, we model for them what responses to their stories should look like. This will help them to gain an understanding of what it looks like for their words to be valued and their offerings to be honoured, it allows for the development of discernment. It is essentially an anti-bullying approach.

A story lens causes us to view employ a 360-degree story view

  • A 360-degree story view entails looking at an event / story from different perspectives.
  • We can present this idea to children from a young age. When something happens in a setting for example, we gather children together and talk to them, asking questions and saying things like, ‘Could you tell me what happened?’ / ‘Now I’d like to hear from someone else for a bit’ / ‘Can you tell me what you saw?’ / And ‘so and so felt…’ / ‘And so and so said…’
  • By doing this, you build a complexity of perspective and through this process children begin to know that there are different ways of seeing an event, they begin to think critically with critical thinking defined as ‘the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgement.’

A story lens causes us to become people who seek out stories

Look for stories in your everyday life and recount them to the children in your care. We teach children to become story tellers by simply telling them stories. That’s it.

  • For example, we can ask children ‘Can you think of one story to tell me about your day?’ as opposed to asking them if their day was ‘good’. This question gives them choices and possibilities – they can share what they wish to.
  • Choose a story to tell them daily, an anecdote from your own experience – ‘I have a funny story / a kind story / a good story / a crazy story / a hopeful story…’.

They will learn how to do the same.

We see that story is transformational. Applying a story lens through which we see others has the potential to change our practice and equip us to act as the allies that children need. Allies who:

  • Will ensure that they are given the space to take in worlds of story wonder
  • Will safeguard their make-believe and their playing out of story
  • Will work to show them what it means to be curious and respectful of the stories of others
  • Will show them what it looks like to be surrounded by people who listen closely to, and champion their versions of the experiences they share
  • Will, as a result of listening closely to their stories, be able to advocate accurately and powerfully for them as they move through their lives.

Helen will be sharing her experience, expanding on this blog post, in the first Montessori Musings webinar of 2022, on Tuesday 11 January, 19.00 (UTC). Register here.


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