Planning for Story Sessions in the Nursery Group

While nursery groups will vary in minor details in their approach to story sessions each has to make various considerations: when they should tell stories, for how long, how large the group of children should be, how wide their repertoire needs to be for the age group of children, how often to introduce new stories, how often to repeat well-known ones, how many adults will take a turn at telling stories, how to ‘train’ new children, and how to ‘train’ new adults.

Most groups seem to plan their story session as the finale to the morning. There are various reasons for this – some connected more with convenience of organization than whether this is the best time for the children. Some groups see this as a time when one adult can look after the whole group so that other members of staff can get on with the clearing up. When all-day nursery schools used to serve a midday meal the story session was often a useful way of keeping washed hands clean until dinner was served. Whatever the reason for this habit there is the advantage that it does not break up a play session as much as a group story in the middle period would. Even if children are quite willing to stop what they are doing to listen to a story they rarely return to their previous game and carry on from where they left off. All too often it has been tidied up in the meantime.

On the question of whether all children should attend there can be quite fierce opinions. Those adults who insist on all the children coming seem to do so more from the point of view of convenience for the adults than benefit for the children: ‘If one is allowed to opt out they all want to opt out’; ‘They spoil the story for everyone else by making a noise’; ‘They’ll have to sit still for a little while anyway when they go to school’. If all the children do want to opt out there is either something wrong with the story session or they are not being given enough time for free play. If non-joiners are a nuisance then better provision should be made for them. On the question of’ sitting still’ – children are in nursery groups because they are not yet old enough or mature enough for school and more formal procedures. If he is a bit shy or lacks ‘push’ the only time he is able to play with some equipment may be when all the others are in the story group.

Most story-tellers prefer to have no more than ten or so children although it is possible to have more and be successful. Timing is important. If milk-time, story- and music-time are all lumped together as circle time this can be much too long, which makes for fidgeting. It also means less time for free play. As a rule of thumb the system which seems to work best for most groups is a ten- to fifteen-minute story and conversation session at the end of the morning or afternoon which, ideally, all children and adults attend. Some afternoon groups find it better to have their story earlier as the children come in straight after their midday meal at home and some seem to need a quiet period in which to relax before they start playing vigorously.

Keeping a record of which stories have been told over a term is a good way of keeping a check on whether or not enough or even too much new material has been added. Neither is good as not enough leads to wasting the opportunity to extend experi-ence and too much leads to lack of reinforcement by repetition. It takes about four tellings for an average group of under-fives to really know a story. Far better than keeping a record is making a programme of what is to be done. It need not be inflexible but at least ensures that new material is introduced regularly. When students are asked how many stories they think children will, or perhaps should, know after two years in a nursery group their estimates vary wildly. With a systematic approach of working out what could be done, the most usual view is that the majority of five-year-olds could know from three to four dozen stories really well.

On training new children little needs to be said if common-sense procedures of voluntary joining in and keeping stories a suitable length for the majority of the age group are observed. One can be a little more flexible about the difficulty of the story as older children still enjoy a simple old favourite and younger children will absorb as much as they can from a more difficult story, especially if there is some repetition or a refrain which they can join in. The situation where every child is new happens only once in the lifetime of a nursery group. New children joining later tend to follow the example of the older children. Exactly the same points apply to inexperienced adults. With plenty of opportunity to listen to other people and to get to know the group of children, with proper preparation of stories and a gradual progression from having a small group to a larger one there should be no problem. Confidence and competence is largely a question of time and practice.

It sometimes happens that there is one superb story-teller among the staff. The other members may feel that she is so much better than they are that she might as well do all the story-telling and they can enjoy her efforts along with the children. This would be a pity – it limits the children’s experience and does not help the other adults improve.

Summary

Should be part of every child’s experience.

Should be enjoyable in their own right.

Are valuable in developing knowledge, attitudes and habits which will be useful at a later stage.

A mixture of reading books and telling stories is desirable.

Are better and more plentiful than they have ever been before.

Choosing wisely includes rejecting those which are poor, in addition to providing those which are good.

Even the’ good’ books do not appeal to everyone. Judgement is necessarily subjective so do not rely entirely on reviews.

The basic themes of stories for young children are limited. A good cross-section of themes and styles should be provided. Traditional fairy stories are not suitable for the majority of pre-school children. There is a need for reference and information books in addition to stories and rhymes.

Home-made books can be very successful but must be well produced. books need to be carefully stored and presented.

Children need to be trained to handle books carefully. They learn most by copying what adults do.

It is better to protect books before children have them than trying to repair damage at a later stage.

This is usually more suitable for children of three years upwards. Before that most will respond better to reading from books.

It is easy to tell a story to one or two children. A larger group is more difficult. ‘natural’ story-tellers are lucky but everyone can achieve a reasonable degree of competence with adequate preparation and practice.

Joining in a story group should be each child’s privilege – not duty. Some of the younger children may not be ready for a group.

All the adults should join the group too.

The length of the story and the timing should be considered in relation to the children’s needs.

Pictures, puppets and props can be useful for story-telling if not overdone.

All adult staff members should take a turn at story-telling.

Planning the story-telling programme ahead ensures that a suitable variety of stories will be used. Telling too few new stories is wasting an opportunity. Too much new material leads to confusion.

Some of the problems of the last ten years have been solved. Everyone is now agreed that a satisfactory environment, giving suitable play experience, companionship and adequate space in which to make the most of these, is vital for young children. Indeed, for the first time ever, money is to be spent, resources made available and a concerted effort made to provide this.

Some problems have become worse. There are now even more children living in high flats, still too many who will have nowhere to play until progress catches up with them, still too many who receive too little or no stimulation in the early years. To this number of’ deprived’ children must be added the slightly different problem of immigrant children who need special consideration. The encouraging point about hearing their particular needs expressed in the same context as those of under-fives generally is that any help given during this early stage of development is likely to be much more useful than a different type of help at a later stage.

The problem of the vast numbers of mothers who become desperately depressed as a result of loneliness and frustration due to their twenty-four-hour day, seven-day week, fifty-two-week year responsibility for young children has lessened. It is interesting that so many of them were only able to crystallize and express their dilemma during the processes which led to its alleviation – by being able to meet at Mother and Toddler Clubs, One O’Clock Clubs, playgroup meetings and courses, and short courses on child development. The new problem that has arisen is how best to meet parents’ need and desire to know more about their own children and child development generally.

Some of the expedients of the last ten years, which were originally viewed as temporary measures only – such as playgroups and playgroup courses – have proved beneficial in ways which were not thought of when they were set up. Some questions have been answered only to raise other questions or in a way which demonstrates how little we know as yet about what young children really need.

This is a time when many changes are taking place, when much experience needs to be evaluated, and further experiment and research needs to be carried out in a responsible but open-minded manner. New thinking and proposals for changes in teacher-training procedure, new thoughts on the role, status and training of auxiliary helpers in schools, even changes in local authority boundaries and personnel will all have their effect. A wider provision of nursery experience will affect what happens in the infant school. The envisaged – indeed recommended -involvement of parents in early education may or may not happen, but in this changed atmosphere where most people see it as desirable there will be an effect if it does happen and equally an effect – albeit a different one – where it does not happen.

As far as ‘education’ for pre-school children is concerned we should try to ensure that any new provision will bear the needs of children, their parents and the community in which they live very much in mind – neither underestimating the value of what home and parents can and do contribute nor overestimating the value of a more formal approach. State nursery education has up till now been so limited that inevitably a high proportion of ‘special need’ children have had to be borne in mind when planning what to provide. With a scheme in which the vast majority of children are from ordinary homes there is room for a complete re-thinking process. To be able to combine the best features of all the various types of nursery experience – the security and stability of the nursery schools, the warmth, flexibility and spontaneity of the playgroups, the professional skills of the trained mature teacher, and the great fund of knowledge, commonsense and energy of mothers – is a privileged position to be in which can only be of benefit to children. To waste any of these resources would be foolish when there is so much to be done.

Nursery groups are only part of the answer however. One of the most useful things we have learned is that a great deal can be done to encourage successful development long before a child is old enough for a nursery group. Parents have always done their best for their children. With more help, more resources, more information and more support they could be even more successful in helping their children from the earliest days. In a world which seems to have become more violent, more turbulent, and where the quality of life for many is abysmally low, our children need the best possible start we can give them.