Three Year Old Stories

This is a follow up on my last post regarding storytelling. If you haven’t read that one yet, it’s worth glancing at it as context for this post.

We probably read between five and ten books a day with my son. A few when he wakes up, a few before dinner or nap time, a few before bed. He is rarely happier than when he is curled up with a book, even if he’s just looking at the pictures.

Recently he’s started telling us his own stories. Sometimes he’ll pick up a book as if to read it and make up a story, other times he’ll be playing with his trains or dolls and enacting some drama, sometimes he just asks if we want to hear a story and makes something up off the top of his head.

Here is one of this recent stories: “Once upon a time there was a muscle man an a rhinoceros swimming in the water. They saw something fly over their heads. It was a soccer ball. They wanted to fly on it – so they climbed a ladder and got on. And the soccer ball went like this: zoom!”

Here is another:

It’s been amazing to watch him play with language as a tool for understanding the world around him. The progression has been:

  • What: When he first began to talk he asked “what” everything was. He wanted words and names for the objects all around him.
  • Why: Anyone who has been around a toddler knows about the “why” questions. Once he had a firm grasp on the names for things, he wanted to know why. Why is the plane in the sky? Why is the sun setting? Why do the leaves turn colors?
  • Story: Increasingly he isn’t asking why as much as a telling us. “The plane is going for a trip to New York.” “The sun is going to sleep and the moon is waking up.” “The leaves are turning colors and falling down because they are tired.”

I think John Edgar Wideman nailed why my son is so drawn to stories – they are his map of the world. “We use a story as a kind of piece of information to orient ourselves, make sense of the loneliness, make sense of what we’ll never be able to decipher: the enigma that surrounds us.”

As parents we end up telling a lot of stories. Sometimes our stories are designed to help explain the world. Other times our stories are invented to obscure it. Sometimes our stories are vehicles for sharing what we know, sometimes they help us hide what we don’t know. I am constantly struck by the care and intensity with which my son listens to all these stories, and it is a reminder about the power of our words and the responsibility that comes along with weaving stories about the world around us.

As important as the stories we tell our children is how we listen to them. Even when their stories seem wild, garbled or fantastical, they are stringing together words and ideas, associations and emotions in new ways that can lead to joyful discoveries for both them and us.

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