Storytelling Engages, Educates Children

Elementary school teacher and Buffalo Commons Storytelling Festival director Mary Dueland reads to children at Kids Fest in McCook, Neb. (Photo by Ariana Brocious, NET News)
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June 19, 2013 - 6:30am

Storytelling is an ancient art that still lives on today in daily conversations, on long road trips, and around campfires. But it’s also present in school classrooms, and entertaining and educating audiences young and old.

At the Buffalo Commons Storytelling Festival recently held in McCook, Neb., young children sit on the floor at Central Elementary, forming a half-moon around poet Sarah McKinstry-Brown as she reads Shel Silverstein’s poem, “If the World Was Crazy.”

The festival, now in its 17th year, mostly caters to adults. But McKinstry-Brown is leading a children’s storytelling workshop at Kids Fest—an afternoon session set aside for a younger audience.

An award-winning Nebraska poet, McKinstry-Brown primes her young, rapt audience to listen carefully before reading one of her own poems, about what heaven would be like for farmers.

Nebraska poet Sarah McKinstry-Brown engages with her young audience by asking them to brainstorm what heaven would be like for children. They turned those musings into a poem (see related box). (Photo courtesy of Buffalo Commons Storytelling Festival).

"I want you to listen for any pictures that come into your mind as I read this,” McKinstry-Brown said. “Because storytelling and poems, they’re all about making pictures with your words.” 

Becki Keenportz is a kindergarten teacher at Southwest Public Schools in Bartley, Neb., and president of the Southwest Reading Council. Earlier in the afternoon, she and other volunteers read to groups of children. Keenportz said it’s important for kids to hear stories and poems performed live.

“I think that kind of portrays to the children that yeah, we can tell stories, and I think kids at this age, well, any age, should be known as a storyteller. And know that their life experiences will help them in storytelling and writing stories and becoming their own author and illustrators someday,” Keenportz said.

Keenportz said it’s important to carry on the storytelling tradition, and hearing stories helps children learn sequencing and recall details, in addition to building other skills.

Becki Keenportz, kindergarten teacher at Southwest Public Schools and president of the Southwest Reading Council, looks on as kids make crafts related to a story they just heard her read aloud. (Photo by Ariana Brocious, NET News)

“Reading is such a great skill that they will carry throughout their lifetime and be able to incorporate into every aspect of their life,” Keenportz said.

Dr. Stephanie Wessels agrees. She’s an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who teaches early literacy, reading foundation, and second language acquisition.

“Through storytelling they can start to develop that story structure, so they have an understanding of how a story’s supposed to flow. And that can benefit them in reading and writing,” Wessels said.

Wessels said storytelling helps children build vocabulary, as well as understand characters and plot. And research shows storytelling can help increase student participation, understanding and knowledge retention in different subjects, even math.

Wessels said one major benefit is ALL children can take part.  “The big thing is you can have every child, depending on if they have a language disability, learning disability or any academic struggles, they can still participate in storytelling.”

Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve spent 25 years as a teacher and school counselor in South Dakota. She’s a member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe, and an accomplished author. Sneve said storytelling used to be a fundamental part of our culture—not just Native American culture, but cultures everywhere that initially lacked written language.

“It used to be very important, because that was the only way that you transmitted information from one generation to the other. Storytelling gave history lessons, proper behavior, how to respect your elders, how to prepare food, just about anything was transmitted and this is called the oral tradition,” Sneve said.

During the Buffalo Commons Kids Fest workshop, Nebraska poet Sarah McKinstry-Brown guided the children in writing a collaborative poem. (Click here for a list of the young authors)

The Heaven of Children


The children wake in the morning

to the smell of chocolate fields being harvested.

They open their eyes and see a blue tractor. 

They’re so excited, 

because they’re going to swim in a milkshake today.


After the swim, they grow purple, gold, green, 

orange, red, rainbow, and pink wings

and fly to Costa Rica, where they ride rainbow gumdrops

and a unicorn made of cotton candy with a Kit Kat horn.

They lick the unicorn’s mane, and, surprise, it tastes


like chocolate! The unicorn flies them to a licorice zip line

where the wind blows through their hair and they hear the 

milk waterfall splashing into the river.  They look up

and see the dreaded Red Gummy Bear. Now their candy cane sword

comes in handy, and they shoo him away, because it’s bedtime


and they want to get back to their gingerbread house

where their cotton candy bed lies and where they will

dream of the fun they had today, because in the Heaven of Children

your dreams come true.

That kind of storytelling, which often came from grandparents, taught children critical thinking skills and how to pay attention, Sneve said.

“Unfortunately today it’s not as spontaneous as it was because we don’t have grandparents living with their children or grandchildren. We do have, in many cases, grandmothers taking care of children, but they’re often working so there just isn’t the time,” Sneve said.

Time is an issue for everyone—especially parents and teachers. UNL professor Wessels said parents often simply hand their electronic devices off to their children to entertain them. The digital content may be educational, but there’s no interaction, unlike storytelling, which engages the child through questions and conversation. Wessels said parents often have more opportunities for that than teachers, who are frequently driven by tests and bound by curriculum.

And home storytelling may even be more comfortable for kids, Wessels said.  “So that’s why we want to try to instill these storytelling techniques with children so they still are able to have a creative outlet for their thoughts, emotion, vocabulary, language, instead of it having to be so structured.”

Sneve said elementary school teachers on the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota invite local adults to come in and tell stories, to help keep them in popular memory if they’re not being told at home.

Buffalo Common’s Kids Fest organizer Sharon Bohling said even while short on time, some local teachers continue to bring extensive storytelling into their classroom. She hopes events like this one will encourage youth to keep the tradition alive.

“Oral stories are our histories and we’re trying to get the younger generation to tell oral stories and not rely on their electronics all the time to communicate with people.”

Poet McKinstry Brown is working on it. She helps her young charges (and their parents) memorize and perform a short poem by Ted Joans, complete with dance moves. You can be sure, these kids will be repeating those lines all day long.

Hear the children and parents perform "The Truth," by Ted Joans.



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