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What Shall We Tell Our Children?: “Storytelling, A Powerful Tool For Educating Children

By Edith (Mama Edie) McLoud Armstong 

Presented by Omni-U Virtual University

(Reprinted by permission of Useni Eugene Perkins, Black Child Journal, Vol. 9, #1, 35-37. 1996. Minor edits as of 2.25.24)

37. 1996. Minor edits as of 2.25.24)

Storytelling is a bridge that leads us to the realm of vast possibilities. It suggests to us how the universe may have come into being. It even describes how Ananse, the famous West African spider, might have had a hand in getting the moon up into the sky. Storytelling offers theories on "Why Dogs Chase Cats”; and how a child perceives life who has lost faith in Spring. Stories also offer ideas on how a person once again becomes empowered, after having succumbed to substance abuse, or to the habitual acceptance of abuse by other individuals. Storytelling is not just for children any more. In fact, it never really was. 

Storytelling offers ideas on how we might best use our lives, by teaching us something of those who have gone on before us. From ages past, it has recounted who among our communities were the healers of body, mind and spirit. We would learn who were the builders of homes, temples and relationships. We would learn who understood the land, and nurtured it, for the benefit of all. Storytellers have sung the praises of our mathematical wizards and astrologers who, in studying the universe, taught us that we are all made of star stuff. We have learned of our teachers, adventurers, our warriors and our rascals. All of these lives: reflecting possibilities, endless possibilities. 

Storytelling serves many purposes. It has the potential to: 

  • nurture bonding between teller and listener 

  • facilitate the development of receptive and expressive language skills

  • assist in the development of sequencing skills 

  • lengthen one's attention span 

  • improve the ability to identify and attend to significant details 

  • develop the ability to describe, providing sensory information, relative to sight, smell, taste, touch and sound 

  • improve auditory memory 

  • improve the ability to think abstractly: extracting meaning or lessons from what was said; learning to identify and understand symbolism

  • increase the opportunities and capacity to create visual images without the imposition of outside influences 

  • inspire the wonder of how things came to be

  • clarify and bring to life information in the academic areas of history, geography, vocabulary development, math, science, literature and composition 

  • illustrate a point relative to unlimited themes or topics 

  • be used therapeutically in assisting individuals to handle fears, past painful experiences and feelings of inadequacy 

  • improve self-esteem 

  • contribute to an understanding of one's self, family or community, and finding pride and joy in a sense of belonging to it 

  • increase one's understanding of others in the world, and clarifying one's perception of their relationship to it 

  • encourage necessary change, or personal growth and development

  • increase confidence the ability to speak before others

  • strengthen faith in what one believes in 

  • contribute to one's spiritual 

  • development and inner peace 

  • inspire hope, offering someone something to hold on to, or reminding them that they never really lost it 

Storytelling can lull one to sleep and awaken individuals to a higher level of consciousness.

Storytelling offers potential benefits for everyone, and age imposes no boundaries. At a time in which many nurturing activities seem associated only with mothers, I am aware of many caring fathers who are, and have been for years, exemplary. I am encouraged by the catalytic energy of the Million Man March, and the continu!ation of work initiated by authors, poets, teachers, psychologists, artists, community center coordinators and men who have always found a way to make time for our children. To these men, I commend you and I thank you. 

Experience as both a speech/language pathologist and professional storyteller has clearly revealed to me that many children, and even adults, have extreme difficulty trying to see an image in their minds from a verbal description. Storytelling is one activity which can offer opportunities to exercise this skill of mental imagery. A few ideas are listed below: 

  1. Have the child choose one character, object, animal or place within the story just read, and draw a picture of it. Encourage the use of paints, glitter, beads, seeds or cowrie shells. Encourage the child to draw clothing for the character as it was seen in a picture. If no picture was presented, ask what they expect the clothing to look like, considering the country that the character was from and the weather there. Then help the child to research their guess for accuracy to respect the culture. Children can be assisted in making paper dolls, with clothing cut from Ghanaian kente or other cultural fabric. Necklaces, earrings, wrist and ankle bracelets can be made from tiny beads. Geles or dukus can be made to "wrap around" the girls' heads. Kufis or crowns can be made for the boy dolls. If clay is available, encourage the child to develop a model of the desired image, with various facial expressions when possible. Then, of course, each representation should be described by the child and discussed. Then it's time for them to tell a story about their doll!

  2. Have the children to role-play a story, assigning parts. Assist them in re-telling the story as best they can. All honest efforts should be honored and favorably reinforced. Have them make animal sounds, the sounds of the leaves on the trees during a storm, the sound of thunder, or encourage them to show with their arms the activity of lightning. They can be asked to imagine what their character's voice would sound like and try to duplicate it. Role-playing can also be a useful tool for helping children to think through what they would do in emergency situations. These activities can be done in school with several children, or at home, with just one child and one parent and with items already around the house. Children often greatly appreciate it when an adult asks to be allowed entry into their own special world. They are often unnecessarily and unwittingly left out of the activities of older people in the family, when they could actually be included, when appropriate. This is the way they learn what is important for "grown-ups" to talk about; the various perspectives that their parents and others might have; what's happening in the news; and how they should possibly consider seeing the world.  

  3. Create a setting for a story and initiate a storyline. Example: "Once, Kweli and I were going on an outing in the forest. It was a beautiful day! The sky was blue and wide, the grass smelled sweet and the sun felt warm on my face. We had a wonderful lunch packed, too! Kweli, what did you pack in our basket?” Kweli responds. Each participant is to add something to the story. The facilitator can judge when something more exciting needs to happen in the story to perk it up, to keep it sequentially on track, to suggest a conflict and to assist with the development of a resolution. 

  4. Easily accessible objects may be used to create scenery for the enactment of a story, or to create a stage and puppets for a puppet show. This can be an enjoyable and stimulating “rainy day activity" at home on a Saturday afternoon, or if a child is ill, in lieu of watching cartoons all day. 

  5. Children can choose from a list of story titles developed by an adult, and create an individual story of their own. Examples of titles could be: “ My Greatest Magic Show," "My First Trip to Africa," "The Day I Saved A Family from a Fire," "A Day at Work With My Dad,” or, "My Brand New Baby Sister." One of the requirements of each of the stories may be that they must incorporate a set number (depending upon the ages of the children) of newly introduced vocabulary words. 

  6. Children can be taken to performances provided by professional storytellers, or a storyteller can be invited to perform for a school assembly, birthday party or community activity. Storytellers also often perform at libraries, museums, indoor and outdoor arts and book festivals, churches, universities, naming ceremonies, rites of passage and a variety of community organizations, corporate and social service entities as well, accommodating both children and adults. A relatively small number of storytellers can perform both in Sign Language and in Voice (called "Total Communication") to accommodate both the hearing and the hearing impaired simultaneously. Some may include another language as well. The stories that are told, the characters, the lessons presented and techniques used to make the stories interesting may be discussed. 

One of the potential benefits of storytelling listed earlier was the opportunity to learn to attend to significant details and to describe them. There are, of course, activities aside from storytelling which develop these skills, yet contribute to the skill of storytelling itself. For example, young children can be asked to describe a favorite doll, a puppy, a tree or park while looking at them, and then asked to describe those same items while not looking. Older children might be asked how they would rearrange the furniture in the house; how they think they could make potato chips; or to draw a picture of the world as they would like it to be. After discussion about the kinds of professions they may be interested in, the children can be asked to draw a picture, reflecting themselves carrying out some activity of that occupation. They could also discuss the academic areas that they must be especially strong in in order to succeed in that profession. Social development skills should be discussed as well.

Recommendation Viewing: 

“Communication and  Culture,” Featuring; Edith :Mama Edie” Gibbs and Ancestor Kelan Phil Cohran 

“Imagine That!!: Imagination and Creativity,” Featuring: Ancestor Oscar Brown, Jr.; Tejumola “Teju” Ologboni; Andrea Fain; D. Kucha Brownlee; and Baba Tony Brown. 

What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black?:...Read by Ancestor Dr. Margaret Taylor Goss Burroughs 

Recommended Reading: 

Marie Winn. The Plug-In Drug: Television and the Family.

Edith McLoud Armstong has provided speech and language services to multiply challenged persons for over 30 years, She has also taught deaf children and adults to speak. Combining skills as a speech/language pathologist, professional storyteller and percussionist, she provides workshops and performances for adult and children's audiences on a wide range of topics. She incorporates American Sign Language when required or performs bilingually in Spanish and English. Mama Edie's article "How to Reach a Multilingual Audience" is included in Margaret Reed McDonald's book Tell the World! Storytelling Across Language Barriers. Her story, "Boca Linda, the Shrinking Girl" is included in the first anthology of the National Association of Black Storytellers, Inc. Her story of "Sena and the Drum," inspired by her Godson in Accra, was published in Chicago Percussion & Rhythm Magazine by Terry Reimer. Mama Edie has provided full-school assemblies and other presentations for clients such as the DuSable Museum of African American History; the African Festival of the Arts; the National Black Child Development Institute; the Illinois Speech, Language and Hearing Association; Argonne National Laboratories; Northwestern University Law School; FESTAC (Festival of African Countries in Ghana); and the New Horizon International Peace Conference in Iraq. She has been awarded by the National Black Storytelling Association, Inc.; Ase: the Chicago Association of Black Storytellers; Kwadwo and Asantewaa Oppong of the Empress Menen Chronicles; Changing Worlds, an Arts-in-Education Organization; the Illinois Arts Council; and the National Storytelling Network. Please visit

Black Child Journal 37 

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