The Earliest Beginnings of Storytelling by Rosalie Warren

Why do we tell each other stories? That’s a huge question and many, many reasons have been suggested, including the need to understand where we come from (in a cosmological as well as a personal sense), to explain natural disasters, to comfort, entertain and keep ourselves from boredom, to come to terms with the things life throws at us, to explore the ‘what-ifs’ of our lives, and, of course, for the sheer joy of creation. You can probably think of at least a dozen more.

Another fascinating question is when, in an individual child, does storytelling begin? As a besotted grandmother of Daisy, who has just turned two, I can report that she is already telling stories of a kind. Her current favourite involves a small plastic doll, known as ‘Lady’, who gets ‘in’ to her bright pink, daisy-spangled car at least five hundred times a day in order to ‘drive to Aldi’ (other supermarkets are available, though not, apparently, to Lady), to buy apples, pears, bananas, bread and (impressive, this), avocadoes. Lady then ‘gets back in car’, drives for a while, ‘gets out of car’, after which the car goes ‘broom broom’ and drives itself home, leaving Lady to (I assume) walk the rest of the way.

I suppose my own children must have told stories of this kind at a similar age, but you forget some things and remember others. My daughter loved designing houses with Lego and later on paper (she is now an architect) and my son was very keen on clocks, interlocking cogs and washing machines (he now teaches Physics). What impressed me about Daisy’s storytelling is that when she and her parents came to stay in our seaside flat a few days ago, her Lady story immediately changed. I may have prompted her a little, I’m not sure, but within ten minutes of arrival she had a new story on the go – one where Lady gets in the car, drives to the seaside to see Nana, and then goes for a walk to the beach and paddles in the sea. Over and over again… Five hundred repetitions later, Daisy was still hard at work (must admit, I have days when my writing goes a bit like that).

You may think it’s stretching things a little to call Lady’s adventures ‘stories’, but I’m not so sure. What Daisy is doing is, I believe, the very beginning of fitting her own experiences into a kind of standard format – one she has heard lots of times in conversation and in the books she’s had read aloud to her. That, to me, is the beginning of creativity. Her stories don’t yet contain any unexpected occurrences – no disasters like being drenched by a big wave, losing your shoes or someone coming along and stealing your car. What Daisy seems to need at present is the reassurance of knowing exactly what is going to happen next, with Daisy firmly in control. We retain some of this need as adults, of course – what is genre but the assurance of a familiar form and story type, even if the details are unpredictable?

I look forward to Daisy’s stories becoming increasingly surprising and complex as time goes on. A touch of conflict would be good, a little suspense and perhaps some character development on Lady’s part! But the essence of storytelling is already there, and for the time being I’m very happy to sit on the floor beside Daisy and be entertained by the repetitive and predictable antics of Lady and her car.

Play, as many people have said, is babies’ and children’s work… (and of course animals play too). In all its aspects – imaginative, sensorimotor, social, etc – it’s an essential preparation for life. (See the work of the renowned psychologist Jerome Bruner, for example, for plenty of insight into all of this.) Storytelling, Daisy has reminded me, is a kind of play, which perhaps explains why many of us enjoy it so much.

Sadly, I didn’t get a picture of Daisy playing with Lady and her car this time, but here’s one of our delightful mini-author on the beach, engaged in another favourite repetitive activity – filling a bucket up with pebbles.

Happy holidays to those having them. Happy writing, happy summer days to all.

Best wishes,

Follow me on Twitter @Ros_Warren


Bill Kirton said…
A lovely post, Ros, which brings back so many memories, especially of the inexhaustibility of children (and, nowadays, grandchildren), as they relive the same stories over and over again, creating worlds as real as the one they (and we) are in.
Jan Needle said…
Lovely that. Ros. I used to have a car like Daisy's, in some respects It often left me having to walk home...
Kathleen Jones said…
It's lovely Ros! I get so much pleasure out of my grandchildren, watching them play and seeing their imagination develop. Interestingly, apparently there's a particular kind of storytelling that only aboriginal women and girls can do. They draw stories in the sand with sticks and it's very different to the male form of aboriginal art. They have their own stories that men are forbidden to tell. Stories, it seems, pre-date language!
Dennis Hamley said…
Great post, Rosalie. Yes, Daisy is definitely telling stories - and good ones too. When you think of it, it's almost our habitual mode of expression. I believe that the ability to tell stories is the distinguishing feature of the human species. We can't help it. We're always recounting our own experiences, to others, often tweaking reality slightly to put us in a better light than we may deserve. Then we listen for reactions: justifications - 'Yes, that happened to me too' - or condemnations - 'You must be daft.' Then we go away with the confidence of either knowing we're like other people and our experience isn't odd and bizarre or the elation of thinking that we are right and the rest of the world is wrong. Either way we win, which makes story-telling essential. And that's where we all start from.
Sue Imgrund said…
A thought-provoking post - where do stories come from? I wonder when imagination as in fantasy starts to kick in? Of course these days stories come in so many different forms for children - word of mouth and books, but also film in all its forms, games, theatre (from Punch & Judy to a spectacular musical), even rides.
What a cute granddaughter you have!
Rosalie Warren said…
Thank you Bill, Jan, Kathleen, Dennis and Sue. Love the aboriginal girls and women having their own exclusive kind of storytelling, Kathleen.

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