Six months ago my husband and I did the unthinkable. We went cold turkey on screen time (for the kids – not us, that would be ludicrous). Notwithstanding the incredible benefit – a child who naturally goes to bed two hours earlier – for my stay-at-home husband, it makes for a Very. Long. Day.
The first time we needed to travel more than 20 minutes in the car, both my husband and I were on edge. I packed the snacks. All the snacks. Broken up into tiny pieces for maximum consumption time. I spent a fortune on audio books and made a huge deal out of them being for “special occasions”. I downloaded “Let It Go”, quite prepared to listen to it on repeat for five hours. For me, I’d packed ear plugs and noise cancelling headphones, but my husband (whose year 7 report card said simply “Matthew talks too much”) pulled a game from the depths of his brain which is now a staple of every family car trip.
It started with him telling a story. He’s a great storyteller and has me believing stuff all the time that is fictional. But, my heart drops a little when I hear “Muuuuuum tell me a story…”. I’m creative, but not in the off-the-cuff way that engages the kaleidoscopic mind of a three-year-old. So, I have observed my husband and in my type-A brain broken down what he does to make these magical stories. Here it is.
It all starts with the child in control (scary, I know). Ask them to choose three things that they want the story to be about. Three is an arbitrary number. I think we choose it because our daughter is three so everything is about three at the moment. Sometimes we get the response “nothing, a blue fairy and Harry (her brother)” which is OK – you can work with anything.
Then, follow one of these techniques.
Technique 1: Find and replace.
Just like when you need to replicate a document but change the names, this is what you do with your story. Choose an old favourite like the Three Little Pigs – three houses, three different building materials and a villainous wolf – then replace the key elements with your child’s chosen ‘things’.
The Three Little Pigs becomes the Three Little Seahorses, houses from shells, seaweed and sand and a villainous crab who chops the houses down! Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk and even a nursery rhyme like Incy Wincy Spider can become interesting and bespoke, which is of utmost importance to threenagers these days.
Technique 2: The Chain Letter.
I’ve quickly learnt that one of the most enjoyable parts of parenting is stitching your partner up.
“I don’t know darling. What is the moon full of, mummy?”
“Of course, you can play Frozen! Daddy said he’d love to be Sven the reindeer.”
“You are such a fast runner. I bet you can beat mummy in a race!”
So, this is a good one if you and your partner love to stitch each other up. You start the same way as before. Get your child to choose three things they want the story to be about, then one parent starts the story. When they run out of words to connect in a sentence they shift the tone to a dramatic cliff hanger and hand over to the other parent. “And then the blue fairy…..” It’s mind-blowing the number of times the blue fairy has headed to the “café” for a tall glass of “amber nectar”. It’s almost like art imitating life.
I’m guessing this one would work well with older kids where you could rotate the next part of the story among all passengers. We do this with our three-year-old, but to be honest she doesn’t carry the thread through of our literary pieces so it can become frustrating.
Technique 3: Mix & match.
I have all the ambition in the world to be a Pinterest-worthy mum but zero of the executional energy. So after hearing “tell me a story about Steve’s truck, a mermaid and a dog” and coming up blank I realised I needed some help.
When foraging through her backpack for yet another snack, I found a deck of Peppa Pig memory cards. In them, Peppa and her family are in all different scenarios. At the vet, making pottery, going on a picnic and I realised; “hey all I need to do is describe what’s on the card then move to the next one!” Story done. It also works with the “think of three things” starter from earlier.
If I did have the executional energy of a Pinterest mum, I’d go through old magazines or print pictures out with my child and make a deck of cards myself. I’d use three categories: places, characters and events. Get the child to choose one from each then just add words like “then” and “after” between them for a ready-made story. In fact, this is a really good idea – I’m going to Airtasker it right now.
So that’s it.
My three-year old’s incessant questioning still does my head in, but we get through it without breaking our screen time rule and I must admit, hearing her retell the stories to anyone that will listen makes me pretty proud.
I like to think that we’re teaching her resourcefulness and how to be an engaging storyteller – both handy life skills. More than anything she’s developing her ability to entertain her little brother when he reaches her age; making the investment in creative energy right now is more than worthwhile!
Lauren Joyce is the Head of Strategy at BROAD, a communications consultancy agency run by Mamamia Women's Network.
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