Story Telling Tips

How do you keep children engaged and interested in learning Bible stories, especially if they have heard them many times before?  In a digitized world, is it even possible to compete with video content?  It seems counter intuitive to me, but children seem to be more engaged in listening to a story when simple props like Clothespin People or Felt & Flannel storyboards are used to augment the telling.  When I was a child, a filmstrip was super exciting because the pictures moved, and this was different from a plain picture.  Perhaps today, children are interested in listening to a story when the teacher engages the students in the story, as this cannot happen with the video content that they usually see.  I have been teaching Sunday school for over 25 years and have learned a few strategies along the way to keep children interested.  Let me share them with you here.

The first principal is to tell the story rather than read it.  I think that children zone out as soon as a person begins reading a story unless it is an especially well written one.  Of course, there are times and ages of children when it is very appropriate to actually read the story directly from the Bible, but especially for younger ones, I find it most useful to simply tell it.  This is a bit more work to prepare because it means that you, as the storyteller must know the details very well.  You need to start by reading the passage from your own Bible to yourself several times.  If necessary, jot down some notes of the most important parts of the story to jog your memory when you present it.  Try to understand any geographical or cultural background information that is relevant to the story.  This might mean doing a bit of research or reading the study notes in your Bible.  Ask God to guide you as you prepare.  The goal of teaching is to bring children to a closer understanding of who he is that they might know him better.

Once you understand the story and have figured out the main points to teach, try to visualize it.  This will help you determine what story-telling props you will need.  Where does the story take place: in the dessert, by a lake or in a house?  Who are the main characters, and do they have any special features?  For example, in the story of Jacob and Esau, you will be needing a man with red hair to play the part of Esau, or Goliath needs to be big.  Are there any special props that you might need (a boat for Jesus calming the storm, a well for the story of Jesus speaking with the woman at the well)?  What do you already have that you can use to be these props?

Now that you know what you need to help the children visualize the story, you can choose the most appropriate tools to use.  If you have a great illustrated children’s Bible, you may simply choose to use the pictures in it as your visuals.  Of course, you could just read the lesson straight from the children’s Bible.  I find, however, that often the stories are so simplified that they miss the main points and are not very interesting, but perhaps this is just my preference for details. 

I find that the Clothespin People work great for most stories.  I have a boat made from an old Dairy Queen banana boat container that I have painted brown. It is the perfect size for the Clothespin People.  If I am teaching the story of Jesus calming the storm, I love to use this boat in a big plastic container full of water.  I put Jesus and the disciples in the boat and then blow a big fan on the water to create waves.  Sometimes I even shake the container.  When it is time for the waves to still, I turn off the fan.  A great song to sing with this lesson is What Kind of Man is This.  The children love the added excitement of the water.  We usually sit on the floor for this one.  Because the Clothespin People can stand up and also hold things, they are ideal for stories in which you need the characters to carry things.  For the Easter story, Jesus can have his clothes removed and a crown of thorns and purple robe added to him. Then he can be wrapped in cloths and placed in a tomb.  All the details on this and a video that I made of the story can be found here.  You will notice that he props are all pretty basic.  Some have been borrowed from my children’s toys like Playmobil.

For something like the creation story, you could give each child a piece of playdough and have them help you tell the story by creating the different things that God made on each day of creation.  Giving the children an opportunity to be involved in the storytelling helps to keep them engaged.  Another thing that I think is really important is including the details of the story.  You want them to understand enough that they get the main point!

In the last few months, I have been using the Felt & Flannel storyboard to teach my grade 1-4 class.  The children are quite invested.  Regardless of which tools I use to tell the story, I like to begin by introducing the characters.  For example, when teaching about Laban tricking Jacob into marrying Leah, I begin by introducing Jacob as the trickster who stole Esau’s blessing from his father and then needed to run away.  Jacob then gets added to the story board.  I tell how he finally arrived at his uncle’s town and met some shepherds who were waiting to water their sheep.  He asks them if they know his Uncle Laban, and they mention that the shepherdess coming with her sheep is actually his daughter, Rachel.  At this point, I add what I consider my most beautiful woman to the board, and make sure that they understand she is Rachel.  I continue the story and introduce them to Leah, explaining how Jacob works for 7 years in order to marry Rachel.  I explain the concept of a bride price, so they understand the story.  Then it is time for the wedding feast.  I use the black side of the board and add a few stars to the sky, add a table with a feast and get the children excited about the coming wedding.  Then I proceed to put the wedding veil on Leah.  At this point, at least one child will point out that I have chosen the wrong woman, but I ignore them and keep on going.  The wedding finishes and they both go inside the tent.  The next morning, of course Jacob realizes that he has been tricked, and the children remember this part because they saw it happening.  This gives an opportunity to share how God is sovereign over all things.  We might feel like it was a mistake, but Jesus was descended from Leah and not Rachel.

Another set of characters that I always point out are the Pharisees.  The Clothespin People have prayer shawls that can be added to any man to make it obvious that they are Pharisees.  We take a few minutes to remember who they were and what they stood for.  It helps us to see why they were against Jesus.  We can also see how we often act like Pharisees ourselves!

Before you begin to tell the story, you will want to set the stage.  This might mean showing a map and pointing out exactly where the story takes place.  If using Clothespin People, I will lay out big pieces of fabric to create my “set.”  If I need mountains, I will stack up some boxes and then cover them with a green or grey sheet.  I have a small lake and river cut out of blue fabric, and some roads cut out of brown fabric that I can lay on top of my base layer.  If you lay these things out as you start talking, it gives the children something to watch and keeps their attention.  With the Felt & Flannel, the same applies.

As you teach, try to engage the children by asking them questions of what they think will happen, or how they might act in the same situation.  Get them to make the sound affects.  If you need a storm, get the children to create the sound by first rubbing their hands together, then snapping their fingers, then clapping their hands, then slapping their thighs and finally stomping their feet.  Reverse the order to make the storm go away.  If your people need to run a long way, get them to slap their thighs to make the footsteps.  When Peter and his friends fish all night and catch nothing, have them count to 10 with you as you wait to pull out the net.

I am in the process of creating specific Felt & Flannel sets to tell Bible stories.  I don’t at this point plan to write out a script for teaching each one, as I think it best if the teacher tells the story in his or her own words.  I have tried to post pictures of what I would consider the main scenes in each story.  These can be used as a reference point to get you started.  I have posted the pictures in the shop with each set.  Hopefully this will be enough to get you started.

I hope that some of my products will help you in your goal of teaching children more about Jesus, and that some of these ideas will help you to feel more confident in your teaching!