Make Storytelling a Family Tradition

importance of family stories

image: CC by 2.0 echoroo

“Language exerts hidden power, like a moon on the tides.” ~Rita Mae Brown

We began to tell stories not long after we humans gained the power of speech.   Stories gathered people together, giving them a way to remember their shared history, to transmit wisdom, to laugh and ponder, to awaken possibilities.

Stories were told over and over and listeners came to know them well. They participated through call-and-response, or by drumming, chanting, or swaying. The tale came alive.

We’re still a storytelling species. Look at the way children experience stories. They beg us to tell (or read) a particular story over and over, one that resonates inside where only stories can reach. Children incorporate stories into make-believe. Their favorite books may very well help to shape who they will become.

Particularly when they’re young, many children can’t help but get involved in the same ways their earliest ancestors once did. They instinctively call out a repeating phrase or yell a warning to a main character. They tap their knees in excitement, hum a tune, or otherwise accompany the story with movement. They feel the story. They become the story.

It’s important to read to our children regularly, but we can go beyond the printed page by making storytelling a family tradition. This has amazing benefits. In fact, it appears that children whose relatives share family anecdotes feel a stronger sense of belonging —- a quality researchers call  best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.”

Children enjoy hearing true tales, especially about themselves.

~Tell them their birth or adoption story including the months of anticipation, reactions of family members, the weather that day.

~Tell them stories of their earliest years––the way he used to cry at the sight of dogs until he finally worked up the courage to pet one and fell in love with all things canine; the time she made friends with another three-year-old at the airport and the fathers got to talking only to discover they had grown up in the same town.

~Tell them stories about their relative’s younger days. It stretches their imaginations to hear about Aunt Essie’s girlhood on the farm, Great-grandpa’s bout with polio, their own father’s youthful antics..

~Talk about family members who have passed away, as far back as you can. Help children imagine these people clearly— talk about what they loved to do, their favorite foods, and acts that were courageous, foolhardy, eccentric, or otherwise out of the ordinary.

Children also enjoy tales made up on the spot.

~Tell an ongoing adventure that features heroic young people who live in a make-believe world, perhaps on a quest to reach a goal. Plot twists and new characters can stretch the tale into months of bedtime stories.

~Tell stories together. One person starts a story (perhaps by putting unlikely characters into an improbable situation), then passes it along to the next person who adds more to the story, and so on. This is great to do on a long drive or while stuck in a waiting room.

~Ask kids to tell you a story. Our children can start seeing what goes on around them as story material — bringing the long tradition of storytelling into the next generation.

Beyond the content of any story is the ritual itself––that of telling, listening and enjoying together. This is something no commercial product can duplicate.

Gathering together to tell our tales is a tradition nearly as old as clustering around a fire for warmth.  As Ursula K. LeGuin says, “There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.”




telling family stories, how to tell family stories,

image: CC by 2.0 Jerry Kirkhart

Play Outside After Dark

The word "lunar" derives from lunaticus, meaning "of the moon" or "moonstruck".

The word “lunar” derives from lunaticus, meaning “of the moon” or “moonstruck”.

The wheel of the year is turning toward shorter days. Early darkness adds a whole new dimension to the evening. There’s something magical about being outside as the sun goes down and dusk turns to night.

Tonight, go outside.

It might bring on awed contemplation. It might inspire conversation. It might turn ordinary fun into something extraordinary.  

Try one of these eleven ideas. They aren’t just for kids. Why not invite friends over or create a “backyard merriment” meetup or use some of these ideas for an upcoming family reunion? (The game Sardines takes on a whole different vibe when you’re playing with adults.) Free fun shouldn’t stop once childhood does.

“Play is the exaltation of the possible.” Martin Buber


1. Start the tradition of taking a walk when the moon is full. You’ll find inspiration in the delightful children’s books Owl Moon by Jane Yolen and Walk When the Moon Is Full
by Frances Hamerstrom. Our full moon walks are simply walks around the neighborhood, sometimes just around the yard. Familiar landmarks look different and the walk takes on a sort of enchanted feeling that only happens after dark.

2. Go outside and sing. Yes, really. It’s somehow more freeing to lift up your voice in the dark. I used to get together with friends who loved to go caroling any time of year. I know it sounds strange but it made an ordinary evening entirely celebratory. We waited until after dusk, then strolled nearby streets singing. (Rounds are particularly nice for anytime caroling.) After caroling a few times near Lake Erie we decided that singing to nature felt particularly wonderful and, if we weren’t by the lake, dedicated our songs to the trees and grass and sky. 

3. Sit around a fire. If you can’t build a campfire, use a fire bowl or fire pit. There’s something timeless about watching flames. Silence feels comfortable and thoughts drift. Each generation of our ancestors, stretching back to earliest humanity, sat before flames too. Perhaps the reflective mood evoked by fire has been passed down by those ancestors.

4. Eat outside. Take your dinner to the park or the beach or far in the back yard. If at all possible, cook some of it outside over a flame. Anything you cook together, outside under night skies, somehow tastes better.   

5. Shine a light onto the house or fence or a sheet hanging on the clothesline, setting the stage for some shadow puppets. Try hand shadow puppetry, called shadowgraphy or ombromanie, to cast moving images with your hands. Or put together some shadow puppets out of black posterboard and wire

6. Sleep outside on an open porch or in a hammock slung between trees or in a backyard tent. If your kids are small, sleep out there with them, maybe just one kid at a time for some special adult-child togetherness. When kids get older, let them do it on their own. One of my kids loved to do this when he was around eleven years old. He’d haul a tent and supplies as far out back as possible, taking along a camp lantern and books to read and plenty of food. He’d set up a tiny camp stove to make a late supper. Sometimes he did this alone, sometimes with friends. It’s a not-too-threatening way for kids to challenge themselves. For grown-ups, a night outdoors can be a much-needed respite from those distracting screens that take up so much of our time.

7. Go out on the steps or the swing or the grass to make music. When it’s too dark to see sheet music you’re more likely to improvise. Your neighbors probably won’t appreciate tuba practice at night but the soft chords of an acoustic guitar or sweet notes from a flute will flavor the air with mystery. 

8. Play with flashlights.  Darkness fun amps up when kids have flashlights. Everything looks a little different in that not-so-bright gleam. They’ll discover for themselves how creepy they look shining the light straight up from their chins or inside their mouths. For people of any age, flashlight games are fun. Here are two such games. 

Statues. One person is It and the other players strike a statue pose. The person who is It walks up to each player in turn, shines a light on them, and tries (without touching them) to make them laugh. First player to laugh is the next person to be It. Strange noises and silly faces will happen. 

Follow the firefly. One person is selected to be the firefly and hides outside in the dark, away from the other players. After counting to 20 everyone goes in search of the firefly, who is constantly moving around from hiding spot to hiding spot. Every 60 seconds, the firefly must quickly flick his or her flashlight on and off. When caught, a new firefly is appointed. This is best played with a small pocket flashlight so that the beam is not too easy to spot. For extra fun, and to reassure small children, let every player have a flashlight they can turn on and off but cover each light with different colored tissue or plastic. That way the yard will flicker with twinkling lights, but players concentrate on finding the color of that round’s firefly.  

9. Play after dark games. 

Sardines: This is like reverse hide-and-seek. One person is the hider and finds a place to hide while the rest of the players count to 50 with their eyes shut. Then everyone splits up to search for the hider. Once the hider is found, each person must squeeze into the same hiding spot along with the hider, being careful not to make any noise. The first person to find the hider is the next person to be the new hider. But that round isn’t over until there’s only one person left searching.

Ghost in the Graveyard: Designate the boundaries of the graveyard/playing field. Pick a home base where players can stand or all touch at the same time such as a large tree, front stoop, or back patio. Choose the ghost. Everyone but the ghost stays at home base while the ghost hides. Players chant, “One o’clock… two o’clock… three o’clock…” and so on, up to twelve o’clock, then shout, “Midnight! I hope I don’t see the ghost tonight!” Players leave the home base and search for the ghost. The ghost’s job is to jump out, surprise, and tag players. When anyone encounters the ghost they yell, “Ghost in the graveyard!” and try to run away. Home base is safe, where no one can be tagged. All the people who are caught also become ghosts and hide with (or close to) the original ghost. Continue the game until everyone is caught. The last person caught becomes the ghost for the next round.

10. Darkness lends itself to imagination, making it a perfect backdrop for telling tales. Try true stories, Darwin Awards, scary stories, funny stories, and tall tales. Don’t forget to share memories—of your kids as babies, of your own growing up years, of long-gone loved ones. And try round-robin storytelling. Someone starts off the story, then after adding a dramatic twist turns it over to the next person, and so on. The ritual of telling tales after it becomes too dark to work is nearly as old as language.

11. Look at the stars, not only to find constellations but to widen your perspective. The best way is to lie on your back, maybe in some nice soft grass. If you look long enough you’ll get the impression that you’re not facing up, but out, with the cosmos surrounding you. Possible bonus: shooting stars.