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Storytelling Activities & Lesson Ideas

This collection of storytelling activities-developed by storyteller/author Heather Forest for her storytelling workshops with students, teachers, and librarians-can be expanded by educators into language arts lesson plans to support speaking, listening, reading and writing skills.

*Storytellers on Tour
*1001 Nights Festival
*A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words
*A Story Treasure Hunt
*Old Time Radio Show
*Finding Stories in Songs
*Story Circle
*Local Historians
*Collecting Family Stories
*Puzzle Tale: Putting the Pieces Together
*Front Door: An Imaginary Journey
*Chain Sentence
*Describing a Stone
*Spontaneous Poetry
*The Autobiography of Anything
*Devising Plot Structures: Creating New Tales
*Proverbs: Wisdom Tales Without the Plot
*Creating Personal Fables
*Storytelling Festival Day
*Art History is Filled with Stories

Storytellers on Tour
Have students practice retelling folktales in their classroom. When students feel confident, teams of three or four students at a time can then take their tales to other classes for a storytelling concert. If older students are sent to the younger grades, ask the younger grades to thank the storytellers with drawings inspired by their stories.

1001 Nights Festival
This is a continuing storytelling session in which a story is begun and then left open-ended at a crucial point. The next day the story is completed and a new one begun and left open-ended at an exciting moment. Stories could be selected from the Tales of the Arabian Nights and told in this fashion, as in the style of Shahrazad, its great storyteller. According to legend, she told stories in this way to a sultan for 1001 nights, which is why the stories of the Arabian Nights is also called "1001 Nights."

A Picture is Worth 1000 Words
A class selects a classical painting. Looking at the painting for inspiration, the class constructs the first few sentences of a tale through group discussion and suggestion. The paragraph is then sent on to another class which reads the first paragraph and adds on another. The process is repeated including as many classes as possible until the tale seems finished. All the classes then gather to hear the result of their group effort read out loud and to see the painting, that inspired the story.

A Story Treasure Hunt
A class selects a well-known fable or folktale. The plot is simplified into a sequence of events that can be transcribed onto cards with short sections of the tale on each. Students hide the cards out of sequence throughout the school or classroom. A treasure map showing the exact location where all the cards are hidden, is given to another class (Or, with clues, one card can lead to the next). Groups of students must find the cards and assemble them in correct order. The treasure is finding the WHOLE story. Two classes can trade treasure hunts by putting the stories on two different-colored cards. The treasure hunts can go on simultaneously and, when each class has found the other's story, they confirm it by assembling it, learning the plot and sending representatives to retell it, or to act it out as a skit to the other class.

Old Time Radio Show
Using the PA system like an old time radio show, have classes create a story broadcast at a special time each week for the whole school to hear. This could also be an ongoing project. Use a tape recorder for rehearsal so that students can hear how the program will sound. The show could have a magazine format, featuring interviews with teachers, student stories or poetry, or discussion of the latest school issues.

Finding Stories in Songs
Find and learn songs which tell a story. Folk ballads to contemporary songs often suggest a larger tale. Listen to records and then have students retell the story in the song in their own words. Or have a "storysong" concert.

Story Circle
One person begins a tale and stops after a few sentences. The next person picks up the story thread and continues it, then stops. Next person adds to it and so on until the tale comes to a resolution. The story could begin with a pre-selected title or subject to guide the improvisation. Try recording the story circle on a tape recorder for later listening.

Local Historians
Have students collect stories about their town from older people. Have students find out how the streets were named. Are there any interesting people or legends to which the street names refer? Are there any local places in town about which people tell stories? Any haunted houses? Have students find out when the town was founded and by whom? Visit a local historical society to see old photographs or artifacts.

Have student create an original historical fiction:
Describe the town from the point of view of a fictitious citizen who might have lived in the town long ago. Include local issues of the time in the story. Tell the story of the town from the fictionalized point of view of a resident who actually lived.

Collecting Family Stories
Have students collect true tales about the "old days" by interviewing older relatives. Have students find out about the history of their families as far back as anyone can tell them. See Collecting Family Stories for an assortment of effective interview questions to gain stories from older family members.

Puzzle Tale: Putting the Pieces Together
Copy a folktale from a printed anthology and cut it up into sections or scenes. Paste each section on a separate page. Give out the sheets to students who each prepare to retell their small piece of the whole story. Assemble the story by having each student retell his or her part in the plot's sequence. Have students keep the flow going as the story is told so that the performance moves along as though one person were telling it. Do a second round by giving students different sections to retell. Notice how differently students retell the same sections!

Front Door: An Imaginary Journey
Working in pairs consisting of a listener and a speaker, have each set of students imagine that they are standing outside of the speaker's front door. Have the speaker verbally give the attentive listener an imaginary errand to do. The speaker must carefully explain to his or her partner how to go into the house, travel to the bedroom, and, once there, describe where to find a special treasure somewhere in the room. Have the speaker tell the partner a story about why the thing to be retrieved is special and then have speaker verbally explain how to travel back to the front door to bring the special thing out to where the speaker will be waiting.

This improvisational speech exercise encourages confidence in one's ability to describe a sequence of events. The journey from one's own front door to one's bedroom is well known by the speaker. The speaker may discover in discussing this exercise afterwards, that he or she imagined the house clearly and "saw" more detail than was mentioned. Telling a folktale has a similar process. The teller imagines the landscape of the tale and guides the listeners on a mental journey.

Chain Sentence
Teams of two students orally construct the first sentence of an invented story. To orally make the sentence, each says one word, trusting their ears to recognize conventional grammar, until a long sentence evolves. Shape the improv by setting the tone of the sentence. Make the first sentence of:

  • a ghost story
  • pirate story
  • love story
  • mystery
  • any story, etc.

This exercise can be used to generate the first sentence of a Chain Story where each participant adds a section to a tale.

The chain sentence exercise could generate a "last sentence." This sentence is written on a piece of paper and placed in the middle of the story circle. The game is over when the story has woven around to the point where someone can say the "last sentence."

Describing a Stone
Pass a stone around a circle of students. Each student must say one word describing the stone without repeating what has been said. See how many times the stone can go around the circle without repeating words. Adjectives such as hard, smooth etc., are a start, but any word that comes to mind is acceptable as long as it is inspired by the stone. For example, a smooth, round, white, oval stone could suggest "egg."

Spontaneous Poetry
Four poets sit together. Each takes a turn spontaneously reciting an improvised poem after someone has "thrown" them a first line. The "poet" speaks the first line and leaps into improvisation at the end of the sentence. The poem does not need to rhyme. The poem must have a vivid image somewhere in it and a sense of finality, or closure, when it is done.

The Autobiography of Anything
Everything has a story! Everything comes, in its elemental origin, from the Earth. Collect an assortment of "things:"

  • Piece of Paper
  • Shoe
  • Sneaker
  • Match
  • Rubber Band
  • Paper Clip
  • Woolen Socks

Imagine the life story of each of those "things." Describe their history backwards through the personal use, purchase, manufacture, to original natural resources from which it or its components were made. Personify the thing and tell its story like an autobiography.

  1. Tell the tale of a piece of newspaper back to the tree in the forest.
  2. Tell the tale of a plastic toy's life, tracing its history back to the oil that became plastic and then back to the prehistoric plants that created the oil.

Devising Plot Structures: Crafting New Tales With A Folktale "Feel"
Explore a potpourri of folktale elements to improvise original plotlines. Combine an assortment of elements, such as character, setting, time frame, problems, solutions, traits that aid, traits that hinder, etc. to create an original plot.

*Plot Structure Scenarios
Devised by Heather Forest Copyright © 2000  

Travel through the sections below and choose one or several elements from each. Tell, write or verbally improvise a story that utilizes all the elements chosen. For improvisational fun...put each element on a card and randomly select character, setting, problem and solution.

Introduce Character(s)
Choose one or more characters.

  • girl
  • boy
  • animal
  • man
  • woman
  • idea
  • spirit
  • machine
  • thing
  • plant, etc.



  • farm
  • village
  • otherworldly
  • city
  • mountains
  • forest
  • arctic
  • ocean
  • desert


  • olden
  • modern
  • future


In trouble:

  • Caught stealing
  • Told a lie
  • Saw or heard a secret
  • Lost something
  • Been captured
  • Under a spell or curse
  • Goes to forbidden place
  • Finds forbidden object
  • Has enemy
  • Is undervalued
  • Is unrecognized
  • Causes jealousy
  • Forgets something
  • Broke something
  • Does not like something
  • Needs something
  • Needs to escape or hide
  • Needs to rescue someone
  • Needs to rescue something
  • Needs to prove worth

Inner Traits

Inner Traits That Cause Original Trouble:

  • Is greedy
  • Dangerously curious
  • Doesn't follow advice
  • Is lazy
  • Is pessimistic
  • Is blindly in love
  • Is enraged & seeks revenge
  • Is naive & trusting
  • Is clumsy
  • Is untrained
  • Lacks confidence
  • Is foolish

Inner Traits That Aid Solution:

  • Is courageous
  • Is resourceful
  • Is imaginative
  • Is kind
  • Is generous
  • Is clever
  • Is loyal
  • Is strong
  • Is optimistic


  • Has helper
    • Magical
    • Non-magical
  • Is rescued
  • Is transformed
  • Discovers skill
  • Finds magic
  • Helps self:
    • Exercises cleverness
    • Uses inner traits
  • Journey undertaken to obtain solution


  • Returns to original setting new in some way:
    • Is rewarded
    • Is wiser
    • Is transformed
    • Comes with gift or treasure


  • Lives well
  • Passes luck or reward on to others
  • Has positive impact on the world
  • Offers wisdom

Proverbs: Wisdom Tales Without the Plot
Have students choose a familiar proverb and develop a story that can surround and carry that thought. Multicultural proverbs offer interesting insights into the universality of wisdom. The following are some selected proverbs from Wisdom Tales From Around the World by Heather Forest, August House Publishers.

"This evocative form of folklore sometimes stands in the stead of a wisdom tale. Thought-provoking proverbs can suggest a larger scenario. I invite readers to look at proverbs creatively and imagine the story the proverb suggests." -Heather Forest

  • One finger cannot lift a pebble. (Iranian)
  • When elephants battle, the ants perish. (Cambodian
  • If you chase two hares, you will not catch either. (Russian)
  • The pot calls the kettle black. (United States)The sieve says to the needle: You have a hole in your tail. (Pakistan)
  • It is better to turn back than to get lost. (Russian)
  • Handsome words don't butter cabbage. (German)
  • Talk does not cook rice. (Chinese)
  • After the rain, there is no need for an umbrella. (Bulgaria)
  • When the kettle boils over, it overflows its own sides. (Yiddish)
  • You can't chew with somebody else's teeth. (Yiddish)
  • Mistrust is an axe at the tree of love. (Russian)
  • If a farmer becomes a King, he will still carry a basket on his back. (Hebrew)
  • Not all that is black is charcoal. (Philippine)
  • Little brooks make great rivers. (French)
  • Every kind of animal can be tamed, but not the tongue of man. (Philippine)
  • Do not look for apples under a poplar tree. (Slovakian)
  • Every ass loves to hear himself bray. (English)
  • He that goes barefoot must not plant thorns. (English)
  • Better to be a free bird than a captive King. (Danish)
  • A blow passes on, a spoken word lingers. (Yiddish)
  • You can't spit on my back and make me think it's rain. (Yiddish)
  • A book gives knowledge, but it is life that gives understanding. (Hebrew)
  • A crooked branch has a crooked shadow. (Japanese)
  • Better bread with water than cake with trouble. (Russian)
  • The heaviest burden is an empty pocket. (Yiddish)
  • A candle lights others but consumes itself. (English)
  • It takes a village to raise a child. (Africa)
  • It is one thing to cackle and another to lay an egg. (Ecuador)
  • One dog barks because it sees something; a hundred dogs bark because they heard the first dog bark. (Chinese)
  • To hide one lie, a thousand lies are needed. (India)
  • A needle wrapped in a rag will be found in the end. (Vietnamese)
  • Do not seek to escape from the flood by clinging to a tiger's tail. (Chinese)
  • Step by step one ascends the staircase. (Turkey)
  • Little by little the cotton thread becomes a loincloth. (Africa-Dahomey)
  • Anger is a bad adviser. (Hungary)
  • Eggs must not quarrel with stones. (Jamaican)
  • Eyes can see everything except themselves. (Serbo-Croatian)
  • Haste makes waste. (English)
  • Every hill has its valley. (Italian)

**An exceptional print source for world proverbs: Mieder, Wolfgang, The Prentice-Hall Encyclopedia of World Proverbs: A Treasury of Wit and Wisdom Through the Ages, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1986.

Creating Personal Fables
Ask students to assign animal characters to represent people they know. This is a private process and no one but the student needs to know which animal represents the student's mother, teacher, brother, or, themselves, etc. Have students create a story staring those animal characters.

Storytelling Festival Day
The primary goal of a student festival is to help students feel confident speaking publicly and to encourage considerate group listening skills to support each teller.

Have each student prepare to present a short oral story (5-7 minutes), first to one other student, and then to larger groups until the telling is for the entire class.

Students can find stories to tell either in the Stories In A Nutshell or Aesop's ABC section of this website, or send students to the Public Library to take out a folktale book from the 398.2 section.

Art History is Filled with Stories Have students research paintings or sculpture inspired by myth, legend, or folklore. After learning the artwork's background tale, have students orally present both the artwork and its accompanying story.

Additional Activities and Lessons can be found in:
* Storytelling Activities to Support
the New York State English Language Arts Standards

* Storytelling across the Curriculum

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