BY KRISTIN GUAY
When it comes to story time with you children, try thinking beyond books. When a beloved stuffed animal is transformed into a character in the story, a long woolen scarf becomes a river, or a sofa cushion becomes a mountain to climb, the story comes to life for your child, creating a wonderfully interactive reading experience.
Oral expression engages children in the story, gives them a better understanding of the characters, helps them hone comprehension skills, and develop creativity and language skills. Puppets, plush characters, and everyday household items can be used to enhance the reading experience with your child. An article in Reading Rockets, "Repeated Interactive Read-Alouds in Preschool and Kindergarten," shows the importance of this enhanced reading with children: "Research has demonstrated that the most effective read-alouds are those in which children are actively involved asking and answering questions and making predictions rather than passively listening. These read-alouds are called interactive or dialogic and result in gains in vocabulary, comprehension strategies and story schema, and concept development."
Start By Gathering Some Props
Look at your child's collection of stuffed animals, dolls, action characters, plush toys, cars, trucks, and other small objects that can be used as props in a story. A stuffed teddy bear can be used while reading Winnie The Pooh, for instance (you do not need to have an actual Pooh plush toy). A plastic car or truck can be used as a fire truck, a boot can be a bird's nest or a bear's cave, a blanket rolled up is now a tall mountain, a stack of books can be a building, and Legos can be rocks, sand or snow. You do not need to look any further than what is already in the room - anything can become a part of the story when you use your imagination. Many popular children's stories do have accompanying plush characters and this is a fun option if you find yourself reading these stories over and over with your child.
Props Allow a Child To Be Engaged In All Aspects of the Story
Elements of a story such as characterization, setting, sequence of events, and foreshadowing can be introduced to children at a young age. Before beginning the story, take a minute with your child to create the setting by using a few props. This might require the parent to look through the story before reading to the child to have an idea of what props might be needed. If the story takes place in the woods, set up some objects to represent the trees, a pond, or even a bear's cave. If the setting is a city street, stack some books or even wooden blocks as the city buildings and maybe even use a few toy cars for the busy city streets. This allows the child to become fully engaged in creating and understanding the setting of a story. For example, if the story took place deep in the forest, creating trees, ponds, and mountains would be appropriate but stacks of blocks as buildings would not. The conversation that occurs while creating the setting helps the child understand what is appropriate for the woods and what is appropriate for the city.
The next step would be to gather any stuffed animals, dolls, or action figures to be used as the characters in the story. (Again, this is where it is important for the parents or caregiver to have read the story ahead of time so some of the characters can be readily accessible as the story progresses. Sometimes just a quick look at the cover or a reading of the synopsis is enough to determine the characters in the story.) As the story develops, these characters can come to life through their actions and voices. This is a great opportunity to talk with a child about how a particular character would talk or move if they were gloomy (such as Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh) or very excited (like Tigger). A parent and child can have conversation about how a character would move - a frog would hop, a bear would lumber, and a butterfly would flutter in the sky. This is also a good time to play around with different voices of the characters - a young child, a grumpy troll, and a silly fairy would all have very different voices to represent their characters. The child can better understand all the dimensions of a character by making them come alive with plush characters.
Props can also be used to allow children to predict what might happen next in a story. Think about the story We're Going On A Bear Hunt where a family spends an entire day traipsing through various terrains in hopes of finding a bear. While the story progresses, you can have a stuffed bear in a boot representing the bear sleeping in his cave. As the family gets closer to the cave, you can stop and ask your child what they think might happen next. Here we have a bear peacefully sleeping in his den and a family creeping closer and closer. The child can visually see this happening with the props and can make a prediction as to what might happen as the family gets closer to the den.
Comprehension skills can also be developed through the use of characters and props. Your child can use a plush character to retell the story and the sequence of events to a parent or caregiver. For example, in the story We're Going On A Bear Hunt, a child can retrace the steps of the family by using the props as a guide - a brown towel is the squishy mud, a blue scarf is the river, scattered pencils are the branches in the forest, and a green shirt is the tall grass. This helps develops a child's comprehension skills as they recall and retell the events in the story.
Development Of Oral Language Skills and Self Expression
Using props during story time enriches the reading process by creating a ripe environment to delve deeper into the stories. This is a perfect time to introduce some skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, and comparison and contrast. For example, while reading the book Dragons Love Tacos, there are many opportunities a parent or caregiver can develop these skills. In the beginning of the story the reader is told how much dragons love tacos but how much the equally dislike spicy, hot salsa. This is a good time to "ask" the plush character representing the dinosaur why they do not like salsa and if there any other spicy foods they do not like. The story explains how the dragons like mild seasonings so a parent can ask their child what else could go inside a taco that would not upset the dragons. The story further explains that dragons do love parties - parties of all kinds. Brainstorm with your child to come up with some party themes that dragons would probably enjoy. Use the plush characters to act out the dragons at the various parties talking with their friends, dancing, and enjoying the tacos. When the dragons do eat the spicy salsa and emit fire from their mouths, a red napkin or scarf would be a perfect prop to represent the fire. When the dragons help rebuild the house at the end of the story, this creates a perfect opportunity to talk about how to rebuild the house. While using the plush characters to mimic rebuilding the house, ask your child what the dragons could do to prevent another fire in the future - maybe build the house out of bricks or put water fire hydrants and hoses in each room. This is an opportunity to have your child articulate their thoughts about the story and the characters.
Develop Creativity and Imagination By Going Beyond the Printed Page
Using tangible objects such as dolls, action figures and stuffed animals helps brings the characters off the printed page and creates more of a real presence for the story. In going back to the story Dragons Love Tacos, use a plush character to verbalize the thoughts of the young boy when the dragons have eaten the hot sauce and are destroying his home with their flames. Ask your child what he might be thinking or how he might be reacting to the situation. Maybe the plush character can run into another room to call the fire department, or get the garden hose, or simply seek some shelter. These are not actual situations in the story but they are all possibilities that can be created by you and your child during story time.
Connection Between Written Word and Spoken Word
Puppets and plush characters can not only enrich any reading experience but also help develop early literacy skills. An article in Scholastic, "Building Language and Literacy Through Play," outlines the importance of learning through symbolic representation. "By using objects that represent other objects (such as colored play dough representing food), children learn symbolic representation. This ability to separate the function of an object from the object itself (using a pencil to stir, pretending you stir with a spoon) is the foundation for more advanced symbolic representations, such as the written word as a representation of a spoken word." Not only is this an enjoyable experience for an adult and child, it is helping the child to learn and develop key literacy skills. Some of these skills include developing oral language, fostering a creative imagination, learning about the order of events in a story, helping the child with comprehension and recall of the events in the story, developing self expression while interacting with the story, and helping to extend the story beyond what is printed on the page.