When you foster your child's newfound storytelling skills, her creativity will blossom.

child playing with dollhouse
Credit: cultura Photography/Veer

For years, I've been telling my daughter, Stella, bedtime stories about a girl named Sasha. She was the same age as Stella and looked like her. One night, when she was 3, she surprised me with her own Sasha story.

At this age, kids discover their inner author: "They start thinking beyond the here and now and have a better sense of sequence and of the logic inherent in making up a story," says developmental psychologist Susan Engel, Ph.D., author of The Stories Children Tell. You can help unleash your child's imagination.

Suggest a Topic

Cut out pictures or food labels, paste them in a book, and use them to spark creativity. "It'll be easier for your child to tell a story if you give her a subject," says Jean Ciborowski Fahey, Ph.D., author of Make Time for Reading: A Story Guide for Parents of Babies and Young Children. "We did this activity when my daughter was 3. The Cheerios on the cereal-box label became balloons, and she told a wild tale about a man with too many balloons."

Ask Him To Jump In

Fill a bag with small, random items such as a stuffed animal, a penny, a button, a birthday-party favor, a leaf, and a pen. Take something from the bag and begin a story about it. Then give your child a chance to select an item and add to the story. Take turns until the objects are gone. "The result is silly," says Emily Neuburger, author of Show Me a Story: 40 Craft Projects and Activities to Spark Children's Storytelling. "You'll both be giggling."

Give The Story a Structure

An improv tool called a story spine, developed by playwright Kenn Adams, can help teach your child how to create a well-constructed tale with a few words to get her started. You begin, "Once upon a time ... " and let your child answer. Then you fill in the second line ("And every ... "). Then start the next line ("Until one day ... ") and let your child add the plot twist. The full story structure is as follows:

Once upon a time...

And every day...

Until one day...

And because of that...

And because of that...

Until finally...

And ever since that day...

Draw Inspiration From Real Life

Once your child feels comfy telling make-believe stories, help him with true ones. "It shouldn't be hard because preschoolers delight in sharing details about their day," says Kimberly Reynolds Kelly, Ph.D., assistant professor of human development at California State University in Long Beach. At dinnertime or bedtime, tell your child the high and low point of your day and ask him to do the same. Ask open-ended questions ("What happened after that?" "Why was that fun?"). Fill in the blanks when necessary, but try not to correct him.

Keep Your Tales Coming

If you feel like you have no good material left, use one of these three cheats: Have the main character find something magical, retell a classic, or create a character similar to your kid who encounters and overcomes challenges. And don't discount stories from your own life. "Children love hearing about their parents' childhood injuries, how they overcame their fears as kids, as well as unexpected encounters with animals," says Dr. Engel.

Originally published in the January 2015 issue of Parents magazine.

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