Toddler storytelling and self-narratives

Once upon a time, Baby was born, and the only way they ever communicated were by crying, not-crying, or making the sounds that lead up to crying. Now, though, they are learning new ways to communicate with you and make themself understood every day. Storytelling may still seem like one of your skills than one of Baby’s, but before long, they'll be spinning yarns with the best of them.

Benefits of toddler storytelling

Storytelling isn’t just for bedtime – when toddlers tell stories, it helps them develop long-term memories, and helps to improve their understanding of the world around them, and all of the ways it fits together. Storytelling uses other skills toddlers have been working hard to master, like communication, understanding of cause and effect, and an understanding of their own identities, and the identities of the people around them. And as they use these skills, they get stronger and stronger.

The social aspect of telling stories together is just as important as any skill, though. When you and Baby tell a story together about the time you went on a certain trip, or had a specific adventure, it’s a way of strengthening your relationship, and building a family mythology which they can see how they fit into. This is true whether the story you tell together is about the day you brought them home from the hospital, or just something interesting the two of you saw on the way to the grocery store.

Types of toddler storytelling

It’s amazing what toddlers can do when they set their minds to it – and in this case, that means telling stories as fantastical as any fairytale, or as day-to-day as a summary of a morning with grandma. The types of stories toddlers tell can look very different from each other, but they use many of the same skills, and do a lot of the same work in different ways, helping the way toddlers think about the world around them to mature and grow.

  • Imaginative storytelling: These types of stories can be Baby’s very own series of “Once upon a time”-style fairytales, but they can also be more fantastical narratives about the characters in their life, or the stories they have their toys act out, or that they act out themself in imaginary play. Imaginative storytelling is a great way for your toddler to exercise their creativity, and the older they get, the better they will be able to understand the difference between fantasy and reality.
  • Reminiscing: This type of storytelling isn’t as easy to recognize as storytelling, since it can start as simply as “and what did you do at daycare today?” Reminiscing helps to establish your relationship with Baby, and helps them figure out their own identity, as they start to think of themself as more and more of their own person. Another type of storytelling that can fall under this category is crib narrative, a habit many toddlers pick up of chattering to themselves about the day as they lie there in bed, before they fall asleep. Crib narratives can help toddlers try out their fast-growing vocabularies, as well as process and work on understanding the day.

Ways to encourage storytelling

The first way toddlers participate in storytelling isn’t actually doing it, but paying attention to it. Listening to your stories, or the stories of their other caregivers, starts to give them the tools to tell their own stories. More than that, though, listening to your stories, or the stories of others, gives them the chance to jump in and collaborate. Even if this participation starts out as just one word, or even an expression or gesture, responding to it, and incorporating it into the story is a great way to help them grow strong communication and social skills.

Asking Baby questions is another great way to help them get started. Even if they start out by giving short answers to how they liked their day, or what they played on the playground, you can help them string their answers together into a story with just a little prompting – and that’s what stories are, aren’t they? Strings of connected events that link together, full of cause and effect, and little moments of conflict – it was a sunny day, so the slide was hot, so you got a boo-boo on your finger when you touched it, so mommy kissed it better, and then you played in the grass. It’s not exactly War and Peace, but it’s a start.

Asking questions is also a great way to encourage imaginative storytelling, whether it’s when the two of you are reading a book together, when they are playing with their toys, or even just when they're in their car seat, looking out the window. The story structures that come with children’s books, like the classic, “Once upon a time,” or the exciting, “Until one day,” can be great jumping-off points for toddlers to start to put together their own stories.

Finally, toddlers don’t always need encouragement to grow into storytelling machines. Sometimes, they just need the freedom to figure out how much they like telling tales for themselves. From having enough free time to engage in lots of imaginative free play with toys to asking them open-ended questions about what they think about the world, to leaving them plenty of time to chatter to themself before bed, so often, just stepping back and giving them a little extra verbal space is all the encouragement they need.


  • Susan Stephenson. “Storytelling With Children.” Scholastic. Scholastic Inc, April 4 2014. Web.
  • Raising Children Network. “Reading and storytelling with babies and children.” Raising Children. Raising Children Network, 2006-2017. Web.
  • “Storytelling in the First Three Years.” Zero to Three. ZERO TO THREE: National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families, April 18 2016. Web.

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