TIME TO THE
Story Retelling through Play
A wonderful way to supplement the reading experience for little ones who are being read aloud to (toddlers and preschoolers) or are just learning to read independently is by retelling a story through play. Retelling promotes discussion, develops language skills, fosters imagination, and allows little ones to practice recalling and re-creating the sequence of events in a story. This builds their understanding of the features of narrative, which is fundamental to developing literacy skills like reading comprehension. The best stories for retelling are those that are very familiar (fairy tales like Little Red Riding Hood and Goldilocks and the Three Bears, for example) and those with a simple, predictable narrative structure (like The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Clip-Clop, Room on the Broom, Dear Zoo, and The Mitten).
Where Do You Start?
There are all sorts of ways to support story retelling. One of the simplest is creating felt versions of the main characters and elements of a story and using them along with a felt board to retell the story. If you don’t want to mess with felt, you can print out pictures of what you’re looking for, laminate them, and add velcro to the back. I did this frequently in my library story time days when I was too rushed or creatively drained to create all the pieces out of felt, and it works just as well. And remember that a homemade felt board works same way as one that you purchase—just cover one side of a piece of cardboard with felt, and you've got the basic idea without having to invest in a felt board.
Another easy technique is to raid your child’s toy box. You can use stuffed dolls/animals, wooden dolls/animals, puppets, vehicles, blocks, and more as the props you need for story retelling. Just group them together in a box or basket and pull them out as needed in the story.
Finally, if you have the time and energy, you can create some very complex sensory story boxes that allow your little one to place the characters in the story's settings. (Imagine the grass, mud, and water of We're Going on a Bear Hunt or the straw, twigs, and bricks of the houses in the Three Little Pigs.)
So once you’ve decided on your props (simple or more complex), here’s what you’ll want to do:
1. Make sure you’ve read your chosen story together very recently or it is a longtime favorite. Then read it aloud together (or let your new reader try it on their own) one more time before you attempt to retell it so that all the details are fresh in your child’s mind.
2. Set out your retelling props and practice retelling the story together with your little one. For some stories, you’ll definitely want to retell the story completely in your own words, but for others (think, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt) you’ll want to use the book’s original language. You can start the retelling process and then ask your child what comes next or if they can say a basic repeated element of the story along with you (for example, in Dear Zoo, your child might be able to remember the words “He was too _______, so I sent him back” and say them with you each time). Or, for a child with some retelling experience, you can let them try it all on their own and just help out with prompts if they get stuck.
3. Once you have finished your initial retelling, encourage your child to think critically about the story. For example, can they retell the story with a different ending? Who is their favorite character? How would they feel if they were one of the characters in the story?
4. Finally, be sure to leave the props out in your child’s play area (along with the book) with the aim of encouraging them to incorporate the characters, setting, and plot into their independent play.
Wondering what this all looks like in real life? Here are some examples for you.
1. Dog's Colorful Day by Emma Dodd
This is a fun story to retell using felt pieces and a felt board. I frequently incorporated it into my preschool story times when I was a children's librarian. It's especially fun to "clean" Dog's spots off at the end of the day.
The basic premise of the story is that Dog is a white dog with one black spot. Throughout the course of the day, and quite a few adventures, he ends up covered in a rainbow of other spots. When he finally returns home, it's time for a bath (which allows you to shake all of his rainbow spots off onto the floor), leaving him with just one black spot again.
If you've never used a felt board before, they are lots of fun for little ones because the felt pieces stick to the felt on the board like magic. This is a really simple felt set to make, which is nice if you don't have a lot of time, and the story is likewise simple and formulaic—while still remaining lively. Little ones can work on recalling the order that Dog ends up with each color spot (which is really quite a challenge considering there are nine of them) or just identifying the colors of the spots and the activity that causes Dog to end up with them.
Dear Zoo is a great choice for story retelling because it's a simple story that many little ones at least partially memorize just from regular rereading throughout the early years. There's all sorts of retelling options, but basically all you'll need is a box big enough to hold your animals (or multiple boxes if you want a separate one for each animal at the zoo) and a basket of animals (elephant, lion, giraffe, monkey, camel, frog, snake, and dog). You can use stuffed animals, wooden animals, or pictures of animals. If you've held onto your Beanie Baby collection like I have, they are perfect for this purpose!
The repeated text, "I wrote to the zoo to send me a pet. They sent me a ________," is something either you or your child can say as you retell each story. Then your little one can open the box to identify what animal the zoo has sent and why it won't work out as a pet (it's too big, it's too fierce, etc.). Then it's time to pack up the next animal at the zoo to send your way. This is also a great opportunity to encourage your little one to add some animal noises to their retelling (although good luck figuring out what a giraffe or camel sounds like).
Another great, simple story for retelling is Clip-Clop. A kind horse invites his friends to go for a ride on his back, and one by one, a cat, dog, pig, and duck climb on. They urge him to go faster and faster, but when he comes to a quick stop, they all go flying. Mr. Horse feels very bad, but all of the animals have had a great time and want to go for another ride. The repeated text, "Clip-clop-clippety-clop,"is something your child can repeat with you, even if they're not up for retelling the whole story on their own.
This retelling requires even fewer props than Dear Zoo—just a horse, cat, dog, pig, and duck. A nice big horse that can support all of the other animals—like this hand-knit one by Pebble—works well, as do smaller animal friends that can balance on the horse's back (check out these wooden pig, dog, duck/goose, and cat toys from Tender Leaf Toys).
Just encourage your little one to balance each animal in turn on Mr. Horse's back and take them around for a ride (one that will end with all them falling off). This is another great opportunity to add animal noises into the retelling.
Like Dear Zoo and Clip-Clop, The Mitten is a story that lends itself to retelling without extravagant props. A little boy loses a mitten in the snow, and one by one, a group of woodland animals snuggle into the mitten—until it has stretched so big that it can't hold another one.
For your props, you'll need a mitten and some small animal toys—a mole, rabbit, hedgehog, badger, owl, fox, bear, and mouse—that can fit into the mitten. I love these wooden options from Tender Leaf Toys. Although there's no owl or mole in the collection, I chose another bird and fuzzy creature to stand in for them. Or you could add laminated pictures if your child is a stickler for animal accuracy.
This is a story that I would recommend retelling completely in your or your child's own words. You could even place all of these in a sensory bin filled with cotton balls or cotton batting if you were feeling really ambitious!
There are countless ways to retell The Very Hungry Caterpillar. It's such a classic favorite that you and your child may have it partially memorized already—and even if you don't have all the language memorized, likely neither of you will need much prompting to remember the outline of the story.
I wanted to share one very fun method of retelling that I used when I was doing story times as a children's librarian. It involved quite a bit of prep work, but it was a big hit! I created and laminated large-scale pieces of all the food that the Very Hungry Caterpillar eats his way through—each with a hole in the middle, just like in the book. Then I held a little caterpillar toy and had it eat its way through each piece of food, which slid onto my arm as he went through it. Once he was done eating, the Very Hungry Caterpillar went into his cocoon (a brown paper bag that also held a butterfly toy) and when he was ready to come out, I pulled out the butterfly instead of the caterpillar.
Another way to make your retelling even more interactive—instead of using a butterfly toy (like this one), let your child become the butterfly by donning their own pair of wings and flying around the room. There's no better way to immerse yourself in a story than by acting in the retelling yourself!