Including Their Voices:
Storytelling by Children

Vickie E. Lake

ìIf there is some truth in the general adage that ëchildren should be seen but not heard,í it certainly describes many of our attitudes towards children under the age of six or seven.î1 This statement reinforces my observation that childrenís ideas and stories are absent from some programs that propose to help students develop social skills and practice good citizenship. Gail Cannella offers one reason why adults think that they need to speak for and in the place of children: ìChildren are described today as innocent, weak, needy, lacking (in skill or knowledge), immature, fearful, savage, vulnerable, undefined, or open-ended, as opposed to adults who are intelligent, strong, competent, mature, civilized, and in control.î2 Because of childrenís dependence on their parents or caregivers for love, shelter, protection, food, education, and health care, it has been easy to view them as ìaccessories,î not as individuals in their own right. Children are heard only through the filter of those who are older; children of ethnic minorities are heard even less. If social studies teachers are to be effective in preparing students to be active citizens, they must include childrenís voices in all curricula. This article offers a strategy that teachers could use to include childrenís voices in their classrooms.


Higher Levels of Thought

How can a teacher reach out to and make connections with a diversity of learners in a classroom? One common reason for teachers not engaging their students in a discussion is that children lack the language to communicate abstract thoughts and ideas.3 However, using storytelling and narratives in the classroom encourages children to effectively explain their thoughts and experiences in terms they are familiar with. Concepts like justice and responsibility are dealt with in childrenís own stories about what is fair and how to keep a promise, for example.

Storytelling is common in every culture.4 For example, Hispanic children could explain very abstract ideas concerning common elements found in moral education programs using a storytelling method.5 Children are challenged to think at a higher level when they assume a role. ìIn play a child always behaves beyond his average age, above his daily behavior; in play it is as though he were a head taller than himself.î6 Play organizes behavior and stories organize thought. Combining the two in a storytelling situation (where children are allowed to assume a character role or explain ideas and thoughts using props) moves children into a higher level of thought (than does reciting information by rote or listening to a lecture).

In a sense, a child at play is free to determine his or her own actions. But in another sense this is an illusory freedom, for his or her actions are in fact subordinated to the meanings of things, and vice versa. From the point of view of development, creating an imaginary situation can be regarded as a means of developing abstract thought.7

Early childhood and primary grade classrooms are usually well equipped with puppets, dolls, stuffed animals, blocks, hats, shawls, and other clothing items. There might also be pictures of the children themselves about the room. These items are useful not just as equipment for freeplay, but as props for storytelling. Children who cannot express abstract ideas directly might be able to tell a story that involves a value or social concept when they assume a role or use props.


Understanding the Child

Every story a child tells or acts out contributes to a self-portrait that others can use to develop an understanding of the storyteller. The stories children tell, about real or imagined events, convey experiences, ideas, and dimensions of who the storyteller is. Susan Engel dismisses the notion that childrenís stories are ìsimply cute and rather transparent, limited in meaning and complexity.î8 Instead she states that childrenís stories are complex in voice, style, construction, and content. As teachers, when we listen to childrenís stories, we gain insight into how children of different cultures experience their world.

Children tell stories as a way of making emotional sense of themselves and others around them. ìTelling stories that capture the flow of experience, in time and space, as a story always does, is perhaps the most essential symbolic process we can use to experience ourselves.î9 Telling stories through the use of symbols (for example, a storyboard with characters of various ethnicity, or with dolls, animals, and photographs) allows children to express emotions about an important loved one. Stories become an effective form of making emotional sense of the world because they also serve a ìcooling function;î they provide a buffer to the actual emotional experiences without the intensity of the original event. This cooling function of storytelling helps children gain mastery over their feelings and a better understanding of their own emotional experience.

The stories we hear are the reality in which we live. The primary way human beings make sense of their experiences is by casting them in a narrative form. This is an ability that develops early and quickly in children of all cultures without instruction or training. ìIt is because we all live out narratives in our lives and because we understand our own lives in terms of the narratives we live out that the form of narratives is appropriate for understanding the actions of others. Stories are lived before they are told.î10


Implications for Teaching

Many educators do not speak with children of diverse cultures about moral elements and behaviors because they erroneously believe that the children have the same beliefs as they do.11 However, if teachers are to effectively include all their childrenís voices in the classroom, they must find ways to understand their childrenís belief systems. A place to start is by observing the children at play and using these observations as storytelling events.

One of the best places to find stories is on the playground or other places where children are not involved in a teacher-directed activity. When children have the freedom to engage in social interactions, they are constantly working on moral problems and social behaviors. In one study that I conducted, childrenís stories that included moral elements usually arose from times of the school day when the students had the most control; including outside play, project time, and time spent at learning centers. One child summed up why he always told stories based on outside play, ìThatís when I get to do what I want to do.î12


Story Material

In an environment such as the playground, children have more control over their own behavior. The teacher observes the children playing, and many classes usually share the playground at the same time. Therefore, opportunities for interactions with students of differing ages and cultures are abundant. Equipment and materials must be shared, and it can be the children who negotiate the sharing, with minimal guidance by a teacher. By observing children during these times, teachers gain information on the moral behaviors of their children, which can later be used as storytelling events.

I told a story to my first graders about an incident involving the slide on the playground. My first grade class shared the playground with a kindergarten class. A new, taller slide had just been erected on the playground. My students were having a great time going down the slide. One kindergarten boy was watching very closely, but would not attempt to climb the ladder on the slide. Two of my students, Cody and Kyle, asked him why he was not sliding. I could not hear what the kindergarten boy said, but it was obvious that he was scared. The three boys talked for a few more minutes then Cody went to stand at the bottom of the slide and the other two boys went up the ladder. Kyle then sat on the slide and the kindergartner sat behind him, wrapping his arms around Kyleís waist. The two boys went down the slide together and Cody waited at the bottom of the slide to provide assistance if necessary. At the end of the run, all three boys were jumping and laughing. They went down the slide one by one for the rest of recess. This example relates the story of students who exhibited characteristics of responsibility, dependability, friendship, and trust. The kindergartner provided an example of courage.

Charting a Story

Following a story told by the teacher or by a student, ask the children to tell you what ìmoral elements,î values, or virtues are contained in the story. A vocabulary list of citizenship terms (values or virtues) should be posted somewhere in the classroom, such as one provided by Kids for Character.13 The dialog that ensues may allow the teacher to perceive how children understand these terms.

A chart is an excellent place to record the childrenís understandings of such terms and their relation to a story. Prepare a chart that has the vocabulary term at the top and two columns underneath, one that says ìLooks Likeî and one that says ìSounds Likeî (chart 1). For younger children, you may want to add eyes or glasses to the Looks Like column and ears or a phone to the Sounds Like column. Write or draw in the columns examples provided by the students. These examples can come from their story. When finished, the chart records specific information about the moral and social elements of a story. Teachers can hang these charts on the wall as reminders of desirable social behavior and can review them occasionally.

Children’s Literature Connection

Providing opportunities for children to tell stories can lead naturally to works of childrenís literature. After reading aloud partway through a book, the teacher can divide the children into pairs or triads and suggest discussion topics such as: What do you think might happen next in the book? If you could be one character in the book, who would it be? What would be different in the story if it took place in a different setting (on a boat, in the desert, or on the beach)? Children can create a new story using the characters from the shared book, or create a new ending, a sequel, or move themselves into the story. The studentsí creative narratives will provide the teacher with information on how children from diverse cultures experience the story.


In order to be an effective teacher, one must tailor a program or curriculum to the specific audience. For an elementary teacher, this means including children’s voices in the classroom. However, when children of different ethnic backgrounds are the audience, we are often at a loss about how to include them. Asking children to analyze stories, and to tell their own stories, enhances classroom climate and promotes cultural awareness for all children. Storytelling is a cross-cultural phenomenon. It is also a strategy that teachers can utilize to improve children’s language skills and to help them think creatively about their own social behavior. Every person has a story to tell; let’s not disqualify or deny children the opportunity to tell theirs.



1. Gillian Pugh and Dorothy R. Selleck, ìListening to and Communicating with Young Children,î in R. Davie, G. Upton, and V. Varma, eds., The Voice of the Child: A Handbook for Professionals (London: Falmer Press, 1996), 120.

2. Gail S. Cannella, Deconstructing Early Childhood Education: Social Justice and Revolution (New York: Peter Lang, 1997), 34.

3. Elliot G. Mishler, Research Interviewing (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986).

4. Judith W Lindfors, Children’s Language and Learning (Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 1991).

5. Vickie Eileen Lake, ìExploring Childrenís Understandings of Honesty, Courage, Hope, and Responsibility.î Dissertation (The University of Texas at Austin, 1999).

6. Lev Vygotsky, Mind and Society: The Development of Higher Mental Processes (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1930).

7. Susan Engel, The Stories Children Tell (New York: W. H. Freeman, 1995).

8. Engel, 185.

9. Engel, 68.

10. Engel, 3.

11. Eunsook Hyun, Culturally and Developmentally Appropriate Practices (New York: Peter Lang, 1998).

12. Lake, Dissertation.

13. The Character Counts organization can be located on the web at

Suggested Childrenís Books

I have listed the character traits, values, and virtues that are emphasized or exemplified in each book.

Anno, Mitsumasa et al. All in a Day. New York: Philomel Books, 1986.
Empathy, hope

Browne, Anthony. Zoo. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.
Fairness, honesty, self-discipline, playfulness, empathy

Fleming, Virginia. Be Good to Eddie Lee. New York: Philomel Books, 1993.
Compassion, empathy, friendship, fairness, responsibility

Gollub, Matthew. The Twenty-Five Mixtec Cats. New York: Tambourine Books, 1993.
Compassion, dependability, responsibility, fairness, loyalty, cooperation

Hamanaka Sheila. I Look Like a Girl. New York: Morrow Junior Books, 1999.
Hope, freedom, acceptance, courage

Kilborne, Sarah S. Peach and Blue. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.
Compassion, empathy, loyalty, friendship

Kleven, Elisa. The Paper Princess. New York: Dutton Childrenís Books, 1994.
Hope, empathy, courage, dependability

Lasky, Kathryn. Pond Year. Hong Kong: Candlewick Press, 1995.
Friendship, loyalty

Lottridge, Celia Barker. The Name of the Tree. New York: McElderry Books, 1989.
Cooperation, empathy, dependability

Morrison, Toni and Slade Morrison. The Big Box. New York: Hyperion Books for Children. 1999.
Freedom, cooperation, hope, courage

Spurr, Elizabeth. The Gumdrop Tree. New York: Hyperion Books for Children, 1994.
Hope, perseverance

Stuve-Bodeen, Stephanie. Elizabeti’s Doll. New York: Lee & Low Books, 1998.
Empathy, hope, compassion, loyalty

Velthuijs, Max. Frog and the Stranger. New York: Tambourine Books, 1993
Acceptance, compassion, empathy

Zolotow, Charlotte. When the Wind Stops. New York: Harper Collins, 1995.


Vickie E. Lake is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Theory and Practice in the College of Education at Florida State University in Tallahassee.