You’ve imagined this moment for weeks: toddlers quietly snuggled on their parents’ laps, all gathered around the storybook, eyes intently staring at you as you begin.
Your moment arrives, however, and things aren’t quite as you’d imagined: the toddlers would rather rev the toy cars around the hall; the parents didn’t remember you were starting storytime this week; the hall suddenly feels at least 20 times larger and noisier than you’d remembered; and the book is at least 20 times too small.
Sharing stories with very young children is not only valuable, it’s vital. Research points to the value of early storytelling in children acquiring language, gaining a strong sense of cultural identity, developing strong literacy skills in later life and forming strong bonds with parents as the principle storytellers.
Furthermore, as Christians there is a strong heritage of sharing the stories of our faith with the next generation: “Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deuteronomy 11:19).
That said, the way we tell Bible stories within our toddler groups looks very different to how we share them in our own homes. Below are a few things to consider when telling them in your toddler group.
When time is limited, be picky about which stories you will use. Jesus, the great storyteller, is the perfect role model: many of his parables contain themes that remain understandable today and messages that can be discovered at different ages and levels.
A large playgroup hall is so often the arch-enemy of a successful storytime. Experiment with the layout of the space you have. You could try drawing the group together into one corner of the hall and provide a special story rug or cushions for everyone. Also, think about your own height as storyteller – it is often a good idea to use a special chair or to kneel down amongst the children.
A bedtime story between a parent and child draws them together to look at the illustrations. In a larger group setting, you need to find other ways of doing this, such as: puppets to retell the story; small toys to hold; instruments to play; big pictures to see; whole body actions to join in with or special props to pass around to feel and smell. These can all help to capture the interest and imagination of the children.
Children may like to sit with their own parents. Share your hopes for storytime with your parents and encourage them to help their own children to engage with the story, rather than seeing this as a time for them to opt out.
Most studies (and the experience of all toddler group leaders everywhere!) reveal that toddlers have a short attention span. It can really help to learn your script, time it, keep it short, sweet and to the point. If a story is too long to tell in a few minutes, it probably isn’t suitable to tell in this setting – or perhaps it would be better told in shorter segments over a few storytime sessions.
Why don’t you utilise the story in the other activities within the session? Many toddler groups use a related craft to the story they tell, but you could also think about the play-based activities you offer and how the story can be told through these too. For example, the parable of the lost sheep can be ‘played’ by hiding a sheep in the sandpit, dressing up as shepherds and sheep and building sheep pens from building blocks.
There are, of course, many other things that help to create an effective toddler Bible storytime. Be open to using your imagination and welcome ideas from your team – and the parents. Try something new, review how well it works and use the things you notice to develop storytime more effectively for the future. Have fun, be creative and continue to share the stories that matter so greatly.