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Narrative play: fact file

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Narrative play: fact file

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Narrative play

Storytelling, the way most kids love to learn, is, when under the play microscope, identified as the unit of human intelligibility. Making sense of the world, its parts and one’s particular place in it is a central aspect of early development. And as we grow, the constancy of stories that enliven and help us understand ourselves and others, from a parent’s telling how it was when they were young, to media-driven stories like Big Bird’s rants to Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon yarns; all involve us in a never ending fun-giving experience. They give us permission to expand our own inner stream of consciousness, enrich our personal narratives with pleasure and fun as our own life stories unfold. “What is the current movie of your life?” If it has comedic overtones, it is likely that your play quiver is more than half full. It is in their capacity to produce a sense of timelessness, pleasure and the altered state of vicarious involvement that identifies narrative and storytelling with states of play.

What is narrative play?

Narrative play is story based play. This can be reading stories, or creating stories, or acting them out. It can take many forms but at the heart of narrative play there will be a story.

It can also happen in conversations, it doesn’t have to ‘look like’ play to an adult eye. There may not be a toy, a book, or a costume in sight!

Narrative play can involve retelling events, changing the sequence of events, adding in ‘untruths’ or extra bits. Parents can interpret some narrative play as lying. Lying is deliberately misleading, sometimes children are simply exploring possibilities or alternatives.

Narrative play can overlap with imaginative play, when children cast themselves into the world of a story, or when they role play situations using small world toys.

Narrative play and learning

Play is the means through which children learn, so what are they learning through narrative play? They are learning so much! In fact, development of narrative understanding is strongly linked to establishing literacy skills. Here are just a few things that narrative play can help a child to learn.

Narrative play suggestions

  • Read stories with your child. One of the simplest ways to initiate narrative play.
  • Think about the story behind the games you play, rather than just the rules. This can even work with board games. Snakes and ladders: who are the pieces? What are they rushing to get towards? Are they getting nervous as they approach a snake’s head? Cluedo: who has been killed? You are a detective looking for clues, using the cards and guesses to puzzle out what has happened. The game is to discover the story, the narrative: you play to discover who was the killer, and how and where was the victim killed. What do you think will happen next?
  • Make up stories with your child. Get them to suggest what happens next or invent characters. There are story telling card games that have prompts and suggestions if you find this difficult. Some are complex and aimed at older children, like the Storyteller’s card game or more simply having cards or story stone that have objects, places, characters on them and you combine them to create a. narrative. You could deal them out in an order to give a set sequence, or add another prompt in every so often. There are lots of ways to use prompts with children of all ages.
  • Talk about memories, when we retell how something happened we tell a story. We make sense of it. The theme that we are thinking about affects how we retell a story.
  • Use story sacks to combine narrative play, with object play and sensory exploration, and to explore themes and ideas within stories with your children.

Imaginative play at different stages

Narrative play in babies

Babies don’t engage in narrative play. However, adults do engage in narrative play involving their babies, and this can help babies develop narrative play in time.  For example, although a baby is not ‘telling a story’, but when a baby babbles, parents will often ‘act along’ responding with phrases like “really?! They never did?! And then what happened?” creating a story around the interaction that does not actually relate to anything the baby is saying. 

Parents also often tell babies about things that are happening around them or make or stories or scenarios about ‘climbing a huuuuuuge mountain,’ when going upstairs, or trekking through jungle when walking through some trees. 

Reading to babies can be beneficial connection and bonding time long before the words become meaningful to them.  It can help to develop patterns of speech, tone of voice, and as they get older, the idea of images as representations.

Narrative play in toddlers

Young toddlers don’t really engage in narrative play, but it develops through the toddler years. Toddlers, whilst they struggle with chronology and sense of time, begin to tell stories, memories, and to engage in narrative creation. This can be alone, but is more often with a parent, and can be one way of engaging in narrative play. 

Children often look for and find meanings in stories, or memories. Stories and memories can help us to understand our place in the world. 

  • “Tell me about when I was a baby…. Now, I’m big and my little sibling is the baby.”
  • “When I was little, I used to”
  • “When you’re grown up/when I’m grown up…”

Narrative play in adults

Narrative play in adults can involve reading, telling stories that are obviously fictional. 

However it can also include using narratives to create a sense of identity. Religion or cultural tales can be a way that adults make sense of the world through narrative play. However, so can many other things, like finding out how the brain works, and responds to events, thinking about formative events and memories and understanding yourself through this lens. 

What makes it play is that it is exploration of ideas. Narrative play can help people understand events, the perspective of other people , and explain how they are feeling, or their motivations, plans or dreams. 


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