Does your mind go blank when your child says, "Tell me a story!" before bedtime? I'm a professional writer of fiction, and I can't tell a children's story on cue to save my life. I've decided spontaneous storytelling is its own skill, and I needed to find a workaround. In case you're in the same boat, I will share it with you.
Just to burst your bubble right away, it's a terrible story. I'm just saying, it works. My five-year-old loves the structure of it and wants to participate in it every night by telling the first part himself. I like that it's adaptable to both creative and literal-minded children, because you invite their feedback, and they can embellish the details as much as they want, or not. It also gives you as the parent an opportunity to feel "homeschool parent-y" by slipping in a little pop quiz about whatever topics you want. (You'll see.)
Once upon a time, there was a …
Now you ask your children what there was. Is it an animal? Is it a person? What's this character's name? What do they look like? Let's say it's this:
… purple giant chicken, and it was friends with …
Another round of character development!
… a friendly and unusually small spinosaurus. They really wanted to …
What did they want to do? Go to the moon? Play on the playground? Sit together at lunch?
… see a movie, but …
Now there is conflict! Every story needs conflict!
Oooo … who was it?
… It was a very rude talking tub of popcorn. It said they couldn't get into the movie until they answered three questions.
This is the traditional troll-on-the-bridge character. I'll point out that Alrik likes to change three questions into 23 or as many as he can get me to commit to, because it extends the time until he has to go to sleep.
The first question was: …
And now you can make up troll questions.
… What is four plus three?
The questions could be riddles, or jokes, or straightforward quiz questions. I like to mix up what kinds of questions I ask. Math questions are a nice fallback, as long as you know your child's general ability level, because you don't have to think too hard to come up with a math problem. (Hey, I'm tired, too.) If I can't think of a question, I'll give Alrik a multiple choice of categories to choose from (science, German, art) and then craft one from that idea.
A few question ideas:
- What number comes after 56?
- What city do we live in?
- Whose birthday is coming up next in our family?
- What's your sister's favorite toy?
- What color do you get if you mix blue with yellow?
- What kind of zoo animal would like as a pet?
- What's the Spanish word for thank you?
- What's brown and sticky? (A stick.)
- Who is your dad's brother?
- What's your favorite food?
They don't have to be hard questions, and you can decide what leeway you give for wrong answers. I usually assume there are no consequences and just continue on to the next question after we've discussed the answer. I do like to make the troll character very annoyed at each question that's answered, to build the tension.
You can weasel in topics that are pertinent to your child's life at the moment, such as if you're trying to get your kids to memorize their address or remember what relative they're visiting next month. When Mikko joins in with us, I alternate questions to each of their ability levels, and I give permission for one sibling to help the other with an answer, if the person wants help.
I don't know why a pop quiz at bedtime should be a fun treat, but Alrik eats it up. I think it's must be the human interaction combined with the lack of pressure and the thrill of successfully besting a troll, so have fun with it.
After all the questions are asked and answered:
… The big tub of popcorn said, "Arrrgh! You answered all the questions! Now I have to let you go past!" But the chicken and spinosaurus said, "Don't be sad, Popcorn. You can come to the movie with us!" So they all went together and were friends. The end.
There you are. It's not yet on the shortlist for a Pulitzer Prize, but it's easy to tell, an easy structure to remember (characters who want to do something, thwarted by someone who asks questions), and engaging for your kids.
Other story ideas to spice up your routine:
- Retell a fairy tale you know well.
- Recite a story from scripture or your culture of origin.
- Tell a story about something that happened when you were a kid.
- Tell a story that happened to your kids' grandparents when they were kids.
- Describe how you met your kids' coparent.
- Tell the story of the day they were born and how special it was to you.
- Read and memorize someone else's story in advance.
- Beforehand, Google "bedtime stories for kids" on your phone, then cheat and hold it out of view of your kids while you read one out loud. I won't tell. Just turn down your screen brightness first so you're not caught.