The Talking Stick – Tips on Storytelling to Children


Some tips on storytelling to children.

I’m a storyteller, so let me start with a story. I was born in the woods of the North Canadian Shield. I learned the storytelling tradition from my grandfather. In early school years I became a skinny horn rimmed legend, because my written stories and oral tales had the power to make people laugh out loud and listen.

You can hear me tell my stories in any school in the maritimes, thanks to the Nova Scotia Writer’s Federation’s WRITERS IN THE SCHOOL program. I visit schools from Shelburne to Tantallon, talking to kids from primary on up. I’m a regular in many of Halifax’s inner city schools because my down to earth delivery and matter of fact style appeals to these troubled tough kids.

This is where I’m at my best. Inspiring these kids. Showing them that there’s more to life than a television set. Showing them that their ambition and spirit and imagination can take them farther than they’ve dared to dream.

Farther even than Canadian Idol.

And it all starts with a stick.

The talking stick is an old tradition, and like any good storyteller, I decided to steal it. The talking stick is traditionally an ornately carved wand, decorated with feathers and beads and precious stones. When a tribe faces a crisis, they gather in a circle, and one by one pass the stick around. Whoever has the stick must tell their story, whatever story they know that pertains to the subject at hand. No one must repeat what another has said. You cannot get by on saying “Yes, I agree with him.” You must add your own ingredient to the mix.

Thus the talking stick circle becomes a large communal bowl for shared wisdom. When they face a famine they will gather around and one man will talk of a time when there was so little food his family passed a plate back and forth and told each other stories about eating. Another boy will share a planting trick his grandfather gave him. A woman will tell you of a way to cook soup from a rock.

The talking stick is what I bring to the children. We start with an idea or even just a sentence. Then I hand the stick on to the first child and say those two magic words – “And then?”. And then the child must add to the tale, until slowly, sentence by sentence, a story is built, and the talking stick has been decorated with the thousand colours of a child’s imagination. I don’t have a fancy stick. I just use a chunk of kindling pilfered from the mock campfire I lay at every one of my tellings. I’ve seen it done with a pencil or even a pen.

The beauty of this ceremony is the unity it will bring to any class. Children find courage in the safety of the group dynamic. If everybody takes part, there need be no reluctant sharers. It becomes a game, more exciting than a thousand Stanley Cup hockey games. More exciting than Survivor and Nintendo tied together with a lightning rope. Children are inherently herd animals, they have yet to discover the gift of their individuality. So you must play with them in a pack, and slowly winnow out the courageous few. The others will quickly follow.

In every class I have taught in, there has always been the one. The special one, whom all the other kids will say – “Oh Thomas, he is a writer. He can tell a story about anything.” By including that gifted child in your group play, you will encourage the less confident ones to try and compete with the one who before this was viewed as a bit of a freak or an oddity.

Storytelling is a contact sport. You can’t just sit there and pontificate. There is no room for dignity and structure. It’s freeplay, and you’ve got to be ready for kids who want to push their way onto the stage and share the spotlight. Who can blame them? At home they must sit upon the couch and stare at the ambivalent mind numbing blandness of a television screen. There is little room for oration, when Dad’s saying “Shhh, save it for a commercial.”

So you must make your storytelling more exciting than television. I have talked to a great deal of storytellers who say it is the story, and not the teller who shines the light for all to see. My answer to that the real magic happens in the audience. You’ve got to make them part of the story. Encourage their interaction. Ask them questions and single them out. Call for hands. Use them as actors, props, parts of the story. Interaction, that’s a prime ingredient to remember when storytelling to children.

The last thing I want to talk about is demystification.

This is something the government needs to learn.

Whenever a new law is passed the government will generally shroud it in such clouds of mystery and baffle-gabbing gobble-dee-gook that the layman won’t know what to make of it, and thus won’t question. This might be good politicking, but it makes for lousy storytelling. Put your stories in a language that kids understand. And beyond that, put the art in a way that they understand. Tell them you’re an old fashioned stand up comedian. An improv artist. A spoken word slow motion rapper. Throw a little pop culture into your schtick, and they won’t peg you with the handicap of being too far above them.

The greatest accomplishment of my storytelling career took place around this principal. It happened at the Kingston & District School during their annual Gerry Carty Memorial Writer’s Festival. During this festival, kids from all across the maritimes who’ve asked to attend, come and enjoy a day of workshops and entertainment. One of the young men in my workshop group was painfully shy. So shy he had to be accompanied by a chaperone. His ambition was to become a journalist, yet at this point in time he was too shy to write a single sentence on a page. I singled him out, took him aside while the other kids were working on a writing exercise, and this is what I told him.

“Look,” I said. “Writing and storytelling is the easiest trick in the world. All that you’re doing is talking on paper, or even better just talking out loud. These are just words, tools that everybody uses all their life. Nobody’s going to mark you on this. It’s just scribbling a few sentences into a paragraph.”

The subject of the workshop exercise was juxtaposition. You were to take a colour and a feeling and put them together. This young man’s task was to tell the class what green smelled like. This is what he wrote.

“Green smells like freshly mowed grass. Green smells like lime soda. Green smells like Granny Smith apples. Green smells like boogers and the green paint on my grandfather’s barn.”

Then he went on to write a whole paragraph about his grandfather. When I heard him read this, I said “By God, do you know what you just did. You took this whole class on a tour of your grandfather’s barn. You told us a story, and you made some magic, just by scratching a few simple words on a piece of paper.”

Afterwards the chaperone pulled me aside and told me that those couple of paragraphs were more writing than that boy had managed all year. I made some magic that day, broke through a wall that would have daunted Alexander. That’s what storytelling is all about. Communication. Letting kids know they’re just as smart and talented as adults.

All they need is a little encouragement, a little time, and a little stick.

yours in storytelling,

Steve Vernon


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One response to “The Talking Stick – Tips on Storytelling to Children

  1. This is a great post, Steve! I can’t imagine how it that little boy must have felt when you took him aside and had a little chat. It was obviously what he needed. Must have felt kind cool for you to know that your encouragement made a difference. Thanks for sharing this story. I found it really inspiring!


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