Once upon a time there was a big, blue sea. And in the middle of that sea was an island. There was a castle on that island and inside the castle lived a princess and her father, the king . . .
It all began one morning in late February when I was with some children in the cubby room. JR asked me to tell a story with a bad guy in it. Playfully I began spinning a yarn about a sea monster who tried to eat a princess who lived on an island. Slowly as the story progressed the princess offered the sea monster some alternative protein, and, his hunger satiated, they become friends and begin to learn from each other.
And after you eat, you brush your teeth? “What do you mean?” asked the sea monster. And so the princess taught the sea monster how to brush his teeth. She reconfigured a broom to look like a giant tooth brush and she squeezed out an entire tube of toothpaste onto it. She showed the sea monster how to hold it in order to reach all of his teeth. He loved the minty taste and the shine of his new smile in the sun (ding!).
There were many requests that morning to tell the story again. I declined, but realized I was onto something. Many of my mentors, colleagues and favorite writers in early childhood education use improvisational storytelling in their classrooms. Sarah Lu did a lot of this last year with the ongoing Kabushka stories. I have been a little more timid or hesitant to jump into this type of creative work–feeling shy about my ability to speak off the cuff and perform. But I finally realized that the only way I was going to become more comfortable with this style of teaching was to jump in and try it.
So the next Monday morning at circle I spread out the big, blue sea and set up the island in the middle. Our love dragon became the sea monster, blocks represented the castle and one small, plastic person was chosen to represent the princess. Perhaps because it was less scripted, and used familiar toys and materials, and could be influenced by the questions, comments and predictions of the audience, the children attended to this story with a different energy than they do a typical book read aloud. There was a humming focus, shared laughter and mouths open in wonder that morning. My own skills felt buoyed by their response and I also realized that I did not have to create any stories out of thin air–I could borrow from my own favorite tales and select moments from the ongoing drama of preschool life. A tradition was born. Mondays became storytelling circles. I dabbled a few times with entirely different characters and settings, but more often than not, came back to the princess, the sea monster and the big, blue sea.
Through these stories the preschoolers considered common problems with fresh eyes.
The sea monster and the princess loved to play pirates on their small motor boat. Each morning the princess would wait for the sea monster to show up. Then they would play and play and play. They would come back for lunch and eat it while sitting on the beach and play some more. They loved playing pirates together. One morning the sea monster showed up and said, “Princess! Let’s play pirates!” And the princess said, “No.”
The stories also helped them grapple with big scary problems within the safe container of a fantasy story. For example, a sick parent:
One day the king did not get out of bed. He told his daughter, “I’m very sick. You must travel to the land of the pattern wizard. He will ask you to solve a series of puzzles in order to gain the medicine I need to feel better.”
A house fire:
The princess and her father used to live in a neighborhood on the mainland. . . One morning they went to the beach for the day, packing a picnic basket and beach toys. . . . They returned to find that their house had burned down.
And encountering a dead animal:
Of all the animals in the sea, the sea monster loved watching the school of red and silver fish. The swam through the water playfully, glinting in the sun. One morning when he and the princess were playing on the beach he noticed the familiar red-silver glint on the beach. He excitedly walked closer. But then they noticed that the fish was not moving or breathing.
Often, after telling a story at circle I would leave all of the props out and they would be available as a choice during explore time. Even though these same materials had been available to the children since the beginning of year, they played with them in distinctly different ways after the story provocations. Some children wanted to retell the entire story exactly as they had heard it. Others enjoyed using the same props to make it entirely their own. In one story EZ made the small girl figure into the sea monster and the sea monster puppet became the princess who sailed in the boat. In LRK’s version of the house fire many reptiles and amphibians made it out of the castle safely before it burned to the ground. When the blue sea fabric was out of reach for AMR and ME, they improvised by using a rainbow scarf instead.
Just like in the first story, which started with a bad guy (the sea monster) but didn’t end with a bad guy (the sea monster changed his behavior and became friends with the princess instead of eating her), each subsequent story had enough complexity to push the preschoolers’ thinking about the hero/villain dichotomy. “Who was the bad guy in the story of the house fire?” I asked. “The fire,” some children responded. “Is fire always the bad guy?” “No, sometimes you need it for cooking, like when you’re camping.” “Sometimes it’s warm.” Or, “Was the princess a bad guy because she said, ‘No’ to the sea monster?”
Today I began the last sea monster and princess story of the school year. I told the familiar first few lines and then turned to the children, asking them to build on each other’s ideas to tell this last story together. I knew I had built a safe space to consider big, scary, taboo subjects when the sea monster and the princess were shot by a gun in today’s story. Wanting to let them explore but not dwell on this scary moment, I asked, “Who will save them?” And luckily the father had his doctor’s kit.
The other frightening subject that they wanted to explore over and over in this group story was moving. Multiple children described one calamity after another that befell the castle. In each case they had to pack it all up on the motor boat (island included) and speed away to find a new location for their house. This was after all, our last Monday story, during our last week of the school year, when several of these children will be graduating on Friday and moving on to kindergarten in the fall. So it seemed fitting that they wanted to watch a beloved story family move on, over and over, each time able to pack up their belongings and beloveds, find a different place to be, and rebuild their life anew.