The Early Childhood Storytime

by Barbara Effron

Preschoolers are my favorite audience, even though they may squirm, wiggle, and play with their Velcro shoes during storytime. They have a short attention span, and sometimes interrupt a story with questions or comments. But with appropriate expectations and thoughtful preparation, you can successfully connect with these energetic young listeners.

Selecting and Finding Stories to Tell.  Start by selecting short stories full of action and an easy-to-follow sequence. Avoid stories with subplots and more than three to four main characters. Cumulative stories such as “Henny Penny,” and circle stories like “The Stonecutter” work very well. Stories should be filled with repetitive words and phrases. For example, in “The Little Red Hen,” the story is driven by the repeated dialogue of the animals: “Not I,” said the dog. “Not I,” said the cat. “Not I,” said the mouse. “Oh my,” said the hen. “I’ll have to do it myself.”

Young listeners relate best to stories with animals, insects, or interesting and entertaining events. Tell stories that have content that relates to their lives. Look for humorous stories or ones that contain notable events that will be interesting and entertaining, such as “It could Always Be Worse.”

Tell stories that use vocabulary they can understand, but don’t be afraid to introduce new words. Names should be easy to remember and pronounce. Find stories that have the potential to invite participation. Use a chant or song in which the group joins you. The story message should be clear and relate to children two to five years old. Stories should not be too scary. The good should always triumph over the bad. Young children have not learned how to distinguish between fantasy and reality. They need to know in the end that they are not in danger. It is important that the mean old troll meets his fate at the end of the story.

A story with a clear ending is satisfying and makes sense to a young child. Most important, tell stories that you love so much that you will tell them with the same freshness and enthusiasm even after two hundred times. Folk and fairy tales, and some of Aesop’s fables, are a good source of stories containing these characteristics. Look in the picture book section and the 398.2 section in the library. Study different adaptations of the stories to help you create a version in your own voice. You can also find the text of many stories on the internet.

Designing the Program: I like to select a theme for my program because it gives me a focus as I choose stories, fingerplays, action rhymes, and songs. However, I am careful to have variety within the chosen theme. Consider one of my fall programs: “A is for Apple, Acorn, and Adventure!” ( ? indicates a song; FP – fingerplay ) Opening song with puppet Introduce Squirrel House Friends “Henny Penny” (Large stick puppets for children assistants) ? Acorn song ? Brown Squirrel “Little Red House” (Told by me with hand puppets) FP “Apple Surprise” ? Way up in the Apple Tree (or can do as a FP) Closing song with puppet Plan a 30 minute program. You can always shorten or expand the time. I have found that even toddlers (eighteen months to two years old) can pay attention if your program is fast-paced and full of variety.

Use a routine such as a simple and short greeting song, fingerplay, or a puppet greeting to begin and end each program. Preschoolers respond to rituals and this is a way to set the tone for the program. After my ending song, I give each child a stamp, just above their hand, using washable, non-toxic ink. The stamp relates either to the theme or something in one of the stories.

Program Content:  A thirty minute program consists of two or three stories with songs, fingerplays, and action rhymes. Use a variety of visual presentations to capture their interest – storyboards, puppets, or hats. Invite children to stand in front of the group with you using stick or hand puppets. Let the children wear masks or hats identified with the main characters. The children can say the characters’ line along with you or by themselves.

I use fingerplays to introduce or follow-up on a story. For example, I use a ghost fingerplay to introduce the jump story, “Dark Dark Tale.” The Ghost I saw a ghost. (fingers circle eyes) He saw me, too. (point to yourself) I waved at him. (wave your hand) But he said, “BOO!” (try to scare person next to you)

Music is the glue that holds my program together. Songs are incorporated in the stories or set the tone for a story. An action song, after a story gives the children a chance to move around and get their wiggles out. You could sing, “I’m An Acorn” after you tell an autumn story. Acorn Song I’m an acorn hard and round, Lying on the cold dark ground. Everybody steps on me. That is why I’m cracked you see. I’m a nut. (repeat this last line four times, as follows: Clap twice or click tongue and knock on head simultaneously while singing “I’m a nut.”)

There are even differences in the attention span between toddlers and children three to five years old. My version of “The Three Bears” for toddlers is a more condensed magnet board story. But I tell a longer version without any visuals to the older children. Sometimes the children of different ages are combined into one group. Then I target my selections to the middle, the three to four year olds.

Presentation: The key to a successful preschool storytime is your presentation and expectations. Sit on the floor or on a low chair so that they can see your face. Do not give long introductions to your stories. If you need to explain a new concept or word, be succinct. Ask lots of questions before, during, or after the story to keep them fully involved, but be careful not to ask something that is too general or vague. Answering simple questions will give them confidence and prepare them for listening. For a winter story you might ask what clothes they need to wear to play outside in the snow. During the telling of “Stone Soup”, you might want to ask them what they would add to the pot to help make the soup. Be prepared for answers that you might not have in mind, and accept all responses. If someone suggests adding cake to the soup, suggest that we eat the cake for dessert. Teach them any short chant or song before you tell the story to encourage their participation, but keep this as brief as possible. Think like a young child and let yourself go. Use your voice and body language to tell as much as possible. Be animated in your vocal expression using a variety of pitch and tempo, but don’t be too loud.

Tell the children in advance if something is going to be loud. Use clear gestures and movements that help convey your story. Don’t be afraid to be silly. Young children like nothing more than seeing grown ups acting silly or making mistakes. I get some of my best laughs when I drop an object by mistake. Build suspense by speaking softly or slowly. Ask questions such as: “And do you know what happened next? “Do you know what?” They love feeling like insiders. Little ones listen with their whole body. Welcome this outward response and know that they are connecting with the story. Comments that interrupt actually indicate active listening. Quickly acknowledge the comment, or find some way to incorporate it into the story, and move on. Every child has the potential to learn new vocabulary and concepts, and to be part of listening audience. Stretch their imaginations, concepts, and vocabulary as you expose them to stories .

The more you love and embrace your audience, the more responsive they will be to you. Young children are quite intuitive and they know when someone isn’t comfortable with them. Preschoolers e njoy the experience of your sharing stories with them. Do not be concerned if each child “gets” the story. Take satisfaction in knowing that you have exposed them to something new and magical. In short, have fun and go with the flow!

Sure Fire Stories:

  • A Bee in her Bonnet
  • Dark, Dark, Tale
  • Going on a Bear Hunt
  • Henny Penny
  • I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly
  • It Could Always Be Worse
  • Stone Soup
  • The Big Enormous Turnip
  • The Brave but Foolish Bee (Aesop’s fable)
  • The Fat Cat
  • The Frog Prince
  • The Gingerbread Man
  • The Gunny Wolf
  • The Little Red Hen
  • The Little Red House
  • The Mitten
  • The North Wind  and the Sun (Aesop’s fable)
  • The Poor Tailor
  • The Squeaky Bed
  • The Stonecutter
  • The Teeny Tiny Woman

Helpful Resources

  • Briggs, Diane. 52 programs for Preschoolers : The Librarian’s Year-round Planner . Chicago : American Library Association, c1997
  • Chadwick, Roxanne. Felt Board Story Times . Fort Akinson , Wisconsin : Alleyside Press, 1997
  • Cromwell, Liz; Hibner, Dixie ; Faitel, John R . Finger Frolics : Fingerplays for Young Children
  • Cobb, Jane, I’m a Little Teapot! Presenting Preschool Storytime
  • Flint Public Library. Ring a Ring O’Roses: Fingerplays for Preschool Children Ring a Ring O’Roses: To order, go to :
  • Harrision, Annette; Easy-to-Tell Stories for Young Children. Jonesborough , Tennessee : National Storytelling Press
  • Irving, Jan and Currie, Robin. Full Speed Ahead! Stories and Activities for Children on Transportation. Englewood, Colorado, Inc.: Libraries Unlimited, 1988.
  • Glad Rags: Stories and Activities Featuring Clothes for Children. Englewood, Colorado, Inc.: Libraries Unlimited, 1987.
  • Mudluscious: Stories and Activities Featuring Food for Preschool Children. Colorado, Inc.: Libraries Unlimited, 1986.
  • Raising the Roof: Children’s Stories and Activities on Houses . Englewood, Colorado, Inc.: Libraries Unlimited, 1991.
  • Isbell, Rebecca and Raines, Shirley C. Tell It Again! 2: Easy-to Tell stories with Activities for Young Children. Beltsville , Maryland : Gryphon House, 2000.
  • MacDonald, Margaret Read. The Storyteller’s Start-up Book : Finding, Learning, Performing and Using Folktales: Including Twelve Tellable Tales. Little Rock , AR : August House, 1996.
  • The New York Public Library. A List of Stories to Tell and Read Aloud. order from, the Office of Branch Libraries, The New York Public Library, 455 Fifth Avenue , New York , N.Y. 10016 .
  • Olson, Margaret J. Tell and Draw Stories (Tell and Draw Series) Creative Storytime Pr;
  • Tell It Again!: Easy-to-Tell Stories with Activites for Young Children. Raines, Shirley C. and Canady, Robert J. Beltsville , Maryland : Gryphon House, 1999.
  • Sierra, Judy. Multicultural Folktales for the Feltboard and Reader’s Theater . Phoenix , Arizona : Oryx Press, 1996.

Internet Sources

Kiddiddles: MoJo’s Musical Mouseum

You’ll find lyrics of songs that you can search alphabetically or by subject. You can listen to selected songs as well.

Perpetutal Preschool

This site is arranged by daily and holiday themes. Preschool teachers’ contributions make up the content of this continuously growing site.

Gayle’s Preschool Rainbow

Finger plays, action poems, nursery rhymes, and songs are grouped according to early childhood education themes.

This site collects over 30 years of Gayle’s experience as a preschool teacher.

Storytime Express
“Unique Journeys of the Imagination”
Contact: Barbara Effron – 703-323-1783
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