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Telling a Bible story to a group of underfives can seem a daunting experience. Unlike adults, who may listen out of sheer politeness, very young children have no such scruples and will simply stop listening if they are not fully engaged right from the start! So how can we prepare a story that will communicate well and engage the children from beginning to end?
KEEP IT SHORT
Stories for this age group need to be kept short and simple. I start by reading my chosen story in the Bible (in various translations) and in any other storybooks that I may have. This helps me to become very familiar with what happens in the story – it’s amazing how often I’ve remembered the sequence of events incorrectly or forgotten something important! I then try to summarise the bare bones of the story for myself in about six simple sentences, leaving out any complicated details and unnecessary place names. (I also note any simple well-known phrases that I want to keep in – such as ‘Even the wind and the waves obey him’ or ‘And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home.’)
ALL THE SENSES
So that’s wha is going to be included in the story, but how am I going to tell it? In order for it to be meaningful, it needs to be told in language young children understand and via their own (limited) experience of life: we need to remember what it’s like to be five years old! It’s worth taking time out to think back to various memorable childhood experiences, for instance playing in the garden or on the beach. Think especially about any that could be relevant to the story. Notice how these memories often involve the five senses. I can remember, for instance, the sweet smell of newly cut grass, the rough feel of sand between my toes and the tangy taste of salt water. Looking at the bare bones of my story, I look for opportunities to describe what’s happening through the senses, since this is something my audience will understand. In the Easter story, I could just say that Mary Magdalene stands outside the cave crying. But if I mention the rough texture of the rock beneath her hand, the warm trickle of tears running down her cheeks, then, as she hears her name called in that voice she knows so well, the way she spins around and has to blink her eyes at the brightness of the sun, the children will be there too in that Easter garden. As Mary realises that it is Jesus standing there, perhaps she suddenly notices the perfume of the blossom on the trees, or a colourful butterfly fluttering by – all details that help to show (not simply tell) her sudden feeling of joy.
IT’S SO EMOTIONAL...
Similarly, I look for opportunities to include certain emotions, since children understand these too. If I think back to my childhood, I can remember times when I felt happy and excited (the night before a birthday), sad (when grandparents were going home), frightened (by the ‘whoosh’ of a fast train roaring through the station), surprised (by an unexpected visit from a favourite relative), as well as lost, loved and valued. What emotions are connected with your memories? Think about the characters in your story and note down any emotions they might have felt that under-fives could connect with.
Stories for this age group need to be kept short and simple. We need to remember what it’s like to be five years old!
THE MAIN CHARACTER
One really good way of ensuring that the story engages with my young audience is by making the main character a young child or a young animal. If you go into any bookshop and look at the picture books, you will see that this is almost always the case. Telling the story from this point of view, rather than from that of an adult, means you’re bound to include things that interest a child. So for instance, in the story of Palm Sunday, the main character might be a small child, sitting on their dad’s shoulders, impatient to see Jesus coming through the gate into the city of Jerusalem. ‘Will he be here soon?’ Alternatively, the main character might be the young donkey carrying Jesus. In both cases, they might be excited to see Jesus, frightened by the noise of the crowds, wondering just who this gentle king is and perhaps delighted by some special word or smile from him. Let your character be curious, asking the questions that the children in your group might be wondering, a little mischievous, perhaps getting into a few scrapes as they begin to experience the world around them.
GROUNDED IN EXPERIENCE
I often ask myself what a child of five might have experienced that would be similar to what is going on in the story and might help them to understand it. The Easter story is a challenging one to tackle for this age group, but children can identify with the sadness of someone they love going away and the joy of them coming back – or perhaps the puzzle of a caterpillar disappearing into a cocoon and the surprise as it emerges as a beautiful butterfly (a helpful if not perfect analogy). As you prepare to tell a Bible story, ask yourself what there is in the story that connects with the limited experience of a young child and work with that. For instance, in the Mary and Martha story, we as adults tend to identify with Martha’s frustration as she tries, single-handedly, to prepare an elaborate meal for her important guest. But young children might identify more with Mary’s desire to sit by Jesus and listen to a story. Perhaps it could be told from the point of view of a mouse, hiding under a chair, impatient for Martha to finish all her chores so that ‘story time’ can begin!
LOOK WHO’S TALKING
I use lots of dialogue in my stories as that makes it sound livelier and gives me the opportunity to use different voices in the telling. Often the Bible does not reveal what different characters said to one another, but we can use our imaginations to fill these gaps and this can give us the opportunity to add some humour, which is great for engaging children.
Make sure that the start of the story is engaging, as it’s vital to gain everyone’s interest right way
READ, READ, READ
It’s a very worthwhile exercise to spend some time in a local bookshop skimming through the most popular picture books to see the devices used to engage the reader. There is sometimes a tendency to tell a Bible story in a bland way, perhaps because we are so keen to pass on the facts of the story to the next generation but sometimes we forget to make it entertaining too. However, surely Bible stories should be told in just as entertaining a way as mainstream ones.
REPEAT, REPEAT, REPEAT
One useful device is the use of repetition. You only have to think of The three little pigs, (‘I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down!’) or Little Red Riding Hood, (‘What big eyes / ears / what a big mouth you have Grandma!’) as well as many modern stories. Children love repetition. Why? Well, most of the time, everything they are experiencing is new to them and this can be exhausting. It’s rather like you or I in the first week of a new job – we are exhausted by constantly learning new skills. So when young children hear a repeated phrase, at last they feel a sense of familiarity: they can relax and even have the joy of joining in. Repetition naturally occurs in some stories such as the story of Creation or young David fighting a lion, a bear and then Goliath. But a repeated phrase can be included wherever something happens for a prolonged period: forty days and nights of rain (‘and still the rain splished and sploshed’), someone searching for a lost object (‘she looked under the table / chair / chicken, but it wasn’t there’), a long walk – think of We’re going on a bear hunt with its ‘Tiptoe, tiptoe, stumble, trip!’
The repeated phrase might also involve a mime that children could join in with. So, if you are telling the story of Creation, children can use their hands and arms to make growing, shining, swimming and flying actions. (‘God made the land but there was nothing growing on it! “Let all kinds of plants grow on the earth!” said God. And they did!’)
Children love words that sound like their meaning (onomatopoeia). So I look for places where I can use these: the crunch, crunch of pebbles as Jesus walks along the beach, the rat-a-tat-tat of a knock on the door, the clip-clop of a donkey’s hooves and the pitter-patter of children’s feet as they come running to meet Jesus. It’s also much more interesting to personify such things as the wind and the waves in the story of the storm on the lake. (‘“I’ll blow a little harder,” roared the wind. “Whooo!”’)
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
Once I have put my story together, I try to practise it several times at home, imagining that the children are gathered around me listening. This really focuses my mind on whether I am telling it in a way that is going to interest them. It’s good to vary the volume of your voice (soft for a mouse, loud for a lion, a whisper for something special, such as the visit of an angel), and the speed at which you speak (slow and plodding for a long journey, fast for something dangerous or exciting, such as a fierce storm). The variation avoids monotony.
I’m particularly keen to make sure that the start of the story is engaging, as it’s vital to gain everyone’s interest right way. This can be done with questions and answers. For instance, bringing nativity figures out of a story basket and asking: ‘Who’s this? Who’s this girl? She’s Mary! Mary seems very busy! What’s she doing? She’s sweeping the floor! Mary’s very busy, when someone comes to visit her. Who could that be? Let’s see. Wow! It’s an angel!’
Having colourful props to hand really helps, so I often pack my story basket (an old picnic hamper) with several toys or objects that I pull out at key points in the story to illustrate it. The children soon get used to the idea and sit by the basket, intrigued to know what’s inside this week.
There’s a lot for young children to take in when listening to a Bible story for the first time: the setting, the characters, the storyline, let alone a spiritual point. We can make things much easier for them by finding a way in to the story, perhaps using a soft toy such as a teddy. So, for instance, if I’m going to tell the story of the feeding of the five thousand, I might first invite the children to pretend they are on the beach with the teddy, paddling in the water and making sandcastles. Next I suggest that the teddy is getting hungry and that he wants to share his picnic with everyone. Then, as I begin the Bible story of the boy who took a picnic to the beach, the children are halfway there in their minds already, and so able to gain far more spiritually from the story – perhaps that it’s good to share, or that Jesus needs our help however young we may be.
Although it can be challenging, telling a Bible story to the under-fives is a real privilege. It may be that with babies and toddlers we are simply providing them with a certain feeling or atmosphere about a particular story or festival. But take Easter for example. A simple story can be the foundation upon which they will build layers of understanding next year and the years after, as they come to realise that the joy and surprise of Easter – that Jesus, who died to mend our broken friendship with God, is alive and our friend for ever.
Vicki Howie is the author of various picture books and resources, and leads workshops on storytelling