Kids 'n' Tell

Why Children Groove on Stories

"You have to start it `Once upon a time.'" So says my daughter whenever I read her a story now and start with anything but that timeless phrase. Though she's only two-and-a-half, Rosalind already has firm ideas of what stories are and how they should be told. It isn't that her mother or I consciously impressed any ideas on her. Rather, her own developing intelligence, in hearing story after story after story, sensed something of importance in what she was hearing and seized on it. Even at her young age, stories as a form represent something to her, hold some kind of meaning for her. And she's making that known.

What are stories to kids? Stimulants for growing imaginations? Buffers for reality? Reflections of culture? In looking for some answers, I went to a place where stories and children are keeping company quite often these days: the theatre. Over the past five years, theatre for children has been on the upswing in Austin - stage productions for young people accounted for nearly a quarter of the theatre produced locally in 1994 - and an increasing number of shows have used storytelling or the basic story form as a basis for connecting with young audiences. At Hyde Park Theatre, where the Children of Light Players stage a different show for children each month, stories are an integral part of most productions, and in Playfest '95, the celebration of children's theatre running currently at the Dougherty Arts Center, stories figure prominently in Austin Children's Theatre's Miss Mary's Trunk Show and, as the title makes clear, in Christopher Maier's The Pied Piper of Stories.

Maier is a natural to talk about stories and kids. He has been studying and presenting stories of many cultures, including folk tales, legends, myths and rhymes, for more than a decade, with most of his performances being for young audiences. He has performed and conducted storytelling workshops in schools, libraries, museums, and senior centers all across the state, from Anson to Waco, Cotulla to Prairie View. He was the emcee and featured storyteller at the Austin Children Museum's Storyfest for its first three years. In the five years that he has been living in Central Texas, Maier has created 10 performance pieces involving storytelling. He has even created a persona, the Pied Piper of Stories, who has appeared at events promoting literacy and serves as the emcee for Playfest '95.

In discussing what it is that children get from stories, Maier distinguishes among age groups and levels of development. Younger kids, who are still struggling to get a handle on the vast, overwhelming world that surrounds them, find stories to be a way of managing that world. "Every day, children are flooded by so many new impressions," says Maier. "A story helps to simplify them and to organize them into a form." It's like being confronted with the ocean, stretching from horizon to horizon. It's so incredibly huge, it's overwhelming. You don't how to begin to understand it. But if you fill a glass with water from the ocean, you have a part of that huge entity that's on a level that you can hold and study and begin to understand. The world is the ocean, and a story is the glass that gives a child a form of order.

As children grow and develop their sense of the order of the world, stories begin to provide confirmation and reassurance of the world they know. "This is when children begin to be more drawn into the rhythm and the repetition and the singingness of it. I've heard people say that the three `R's a storyteller needs to remember are rhythm, rhyme, and repetition. It's this wonderful way of bringing order out of chaos. The best example is probably the cumulative tale, you know, like the song `There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.' You have this basic premise and you keep adding on to it and coming back and adding on more and coming back and always coming back and adding on. By the end of it, through this miracle of symbolic communication, we've organized these unconnected things into a world. Children need that. They want to make sure this is the same world. A story has a form; it has a ritual that assures them of that."

One of the most important functions a story serves to a developing child is as a stimulus to the imagination, and that is one of the driving forces behind Maier's work as a storyteller. "I'm interested that theatre has returned to storytelling," he says, "and I believe that part of the reason why is that when you supply less to the audience, they have to supply more. When I supply two brush strokes in creating the image of a character, they're supplying the rest in their own mind. They're the co-creator of it." Maier strives to keep the descriptions in his stories simple enough that the audience is encouraged to create the scene for themselves. In children in particular, this promotes their abilities to think creatively and to envision situations and solutions and enhances their initiative.

Beyond this, Maier notes, children are able to develop an appreciation for the elements of the form - the story's structure, the language involved - from which they can begin to create stories themselves. "I do workshops at schools, both primary and secondary schools," Maier says. "One I call Tell Me Why. I give the students the structure of a creation story or a pourquois story, like how the elephant got its trunk. We start off imagining something that they wonder about. It's basically kind of teaching them the story, the basic structure of the form, the look at the man behind the curtain. Another workshop involves creating original folk tales. I strip down a very basic story like the story of the three little pigs and then get the students to rewrite it set in their world, say, their school. Once you start juxtaposing a story they know everything about with the world they know - like who in your school would be the big bad wolf? - you give them the freedom to invent, the freedom to create. Second graders are just bubbling over with material. But the third and fourth grade ages are the ages I really like. There is an unself-consciousness and willingness to play in children that age that they begin to lose not long after that. It's a wonderful age."

Maier notes, however, that while children may outgrow certain kinds of stories, they never outgrow stories altogether. Our attraction to narrative and to the spinning of yarns by a skilled storyteller endures. The reasons are many, but one of the most important for Maier is the connection it provides between people. "I think of storytelling as a cross between a formalized theatrical experience and a conversation. You know how when we're talking, we check in with each other? It's like that. And I can tell we're all there all creating it together. I'm humbled by it the more I do it." n The Pied Piper of Storiesruns through June 24 at the Dougherty Arts Center.

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