Woman talking to her laughing toddler

Some children get excited for storytime. Other children are restless and simply cannot be bothered to pay attention at storytime. Some adults enjoy reading picture books to their children. Others do not. Regardless, engaging children through story is valuable for pre-reading development.

I hope this helps you on your journey of engaging preschoolers with stories.

Why engage preschoolers with stories without reading a book?

As a preschool teacher, here are some key reasons I would tell a story without using a physical book:

  • Children who have a limited grasp of English, whether due to speech delays or English being a second language, find it hard to follow long strings of words.  Many picture books have a lot of words with only a few storyline clues in the pictures. Several of the methods recommended below show the action of the story rather than just telling about it.
  • Some children have a hard time sitting still in general. Using new and unusual ways to tell a story catches their attention far better. Later, as they learn to follow and enjoy stories, they may be more able and willing to sit for a picture book.
  • Sometimes the child has already heard the story you are telling many times before. They get bored and fidgety because they know exactly what’s coming. This is an important indicator for the storyteller that it is time to find a different story or a new storytelling method to help capture the attention of the audience.

Methods of storytelling

The possibilities are endless, but here are a few ideas to get you started. Keep in mind, you don’t have to make up your own story. Find an engaging preschool book you enjoy and retell the story using one of these methods.

  • Toys as props
    • Lego/Duplo – If you have time beforehand, you can build whatever building or vehicle the story requires. Better yet, ask the children to help you build it, then set it aside until storytime.
    • Small dolls or animals (stuffed or plastic, etc.) – I recommend using small dolls or animals, especially ones that can bend as needed for the story (some dolls can’t sit down).
  • Playdough
    • Some stories might lend themselves well to playdough. It would likely be best to pre-build all the props you will need, or at least practice building them so that you can make them quickly without losing the children’s interest. Think ahead about how you will make sure all the children can see what you’re doing.
  • Act it out
    • Stand up, put on a hat and play the parts yourself. Only some stories will work well this way, especially for preschoolers. Alternatively, allow the children to be actors. However, here again, I caution you to be intentional to keep things fair.
  • Felt board
    • Felt boards or flannel boards might seem old fashioned, but the children love them. You can buy felt board sets to use that correlate with specific stories or buy generic sets of farm animals or community workers. Also, consider cutting your own shapes out of felt or paper with velcro on the back.
  • Puppets
    • Puppets can be store-bought or homemade. Children thoroughly enjoy puppets with or without a puppet theatre to hide behind. If you don’t want to make the puppet talk, have them whisper in your ear and then repeat what they “told” you, such as:
      • “What’s that, Mr. Rabbit?” “Oh, you’re looking for your carrot?” “Mr. Rabbit says he wants us to help him find his carrot.”
  • Cut out paper shapes
  • Picture book pages
    • When it comes to preschoolers, you don’t have to change things much to make it seem brand new and exciting. Do you have a picture book with a spine that is falling apart? Consider cutting all the pages out and laminating them. Then you can hold up the pages, one at a time, while you tell the story. I encourage you to number the pages for your own reference. Laminating the pages will help them last far longer.

Tips

  • Know the story
    • Whether you make up your own story or retell a story from your favourite picture book, the most important key to storytelling is to know the story well. If the story is written down, read it over several times and practice paraphrasing it. If you need to, write cue cards to jog your memory of the order of events. If it is a repetitive story such as Brown Bear, Brown Bear by Eric Carle, try writing out the first few stanzas to help you get started.
  • Know your audience
    • If the story you want to tell is too complex, or otherwise not age-appropriate, you will lose your audience. It isn’t so much a matter of whether the child is a five year old or a two year old. Rather, pay attention to where they are at developmentally. When you tell a story, watch for cues that they are not following a too complicated story or that they are bored since the story is too simple. This, of course, gets tricky when you have more than one child and a range of developmental levels.
  • Make eye contact
    • Once you’ve learned the story inside out, you won’t have to be looking at the words on the page. This frees you to make eye contact with the children as you are telling the story. Eye contact makes storytelling more personal and engaging.
  • Consider the setup
    • Think about how you can hold whatever props you might be using so that all the children can see them. For larger groups, you may need to sit on a chair while the children sit on the carpet. Or if the children are in chairs, you may need to stand. A child who can’t see the props will find it much harder to be engaged.
  • Involve the children
    • Find ways to involve the children in the story. Some of the methods in the following bullet points work well to enhance the reading of a picture book rather than telling the story without using the picture book.
      • Let them fill in blanks: A key way to do this is by letting the children say parts of the story based on clues you provide. For example, when I’m reading Brown Bear, Brown Bear, I might say “Brown bear, brown bear what do you see? I see a…” then wait for a child to tell me what picture/prop I’m showing.
      • Include actions: Some stories lend themselves well to actions. Kitten’s First Full Moon, by Kevin Henkes, is a good one for this. You can encourage the children to wiggle their noses or pretend to climb a tree with the character.
      • Ask questions: Pause the story from time to time to ask a question. The question could be in line with the story: “Do you think he will do it?” “How did that make her feel?” Or the question might be a side comment that enhances general knowledge: “What colour is her shirt?” “How many buttons does he have?” Be careful to watch for signs of your audience’s engagement with this one. Too many questions, or miss-timed questions, can break the flow of the storyline.
      • Hold props: Most children love being allowed to hold the props, but I caution you on this one. Be very careful about fairness. For small groups of children, or one on one storytimes, allowing the child to hold the props, or find whichever prop you need next, can be excellent. However, if you have a large group of children, but only two props, it may cause arguing over who gets to hold it. On another note, once you’ve let the children hold the props for one story, they may beg to hold them for all future stories. Therefore, consider carefully whether this powerful engagement tool will be beneficial in your setting.

Other resources

Need something simpler, yet still engaging? Check out my post about 7 interactive preschool books. These are a great way to engage a child with picture books who won’t sit for most books. sjlittle.ca/preschool/7-fantastic-animal-guessing-books-for-preschoolers 

For a list of my favourite stories see my Pinterest board: www.pinterest.ca/sjlittleauthor/preschooltoddler-books-s-j-littles-favourite 

Other picture books I also recommend: www.pinterest.ca/sjlittleauthor/books-for-preschoolers-and-toddlers 

What are other ways you’ve engaged preschoolers with stories?

S. J. Little reviews 7 animal preschool books that engage children through guessing.

The following are some of my favourite animal picture books that get children interacting at storytime. These guessing books for preschoolers give clues, whether visual or through words, about what animal may be hiding on the next page or under the flap. Especially at the beginning of the school year, I find these books intrigue youngsters who are otherwise unwilling to sit for stories.

1. Are You My Mommy?

(Lift the flap)

Written and Illustrated by Mary MurphyAre You My Mommy? by Mary Murphy - review by S J Little

This is currently one of my absolute favourite preschool books. The storyline – a puppy looking for his mommy – is simple enough for my two year old class to follow and enjoy. As the puppy asks each hidden animal if they are his mommy, the children try to guess the animal based on visible clues. My two year olds enjoyed naming each farm animal after I opened the flap, while my three year olds were typically able to guess the animal before I opened it. Now here’s the part that makes this little board book so fantastic. I found that most of my three year olds were well versed in, and becoming bored of, the typical farm animal names: horse, cow, pig… In fact, many of my two year olds knew them all. Mary Murphy doesn’t stop with just the standard farm animals. Instead, under each flap is a baby to go with the mommy. These baby animal names were brand new for my three year olds. They hadn’t heard of ducklings, piglets, and calves before. This kept my advanced students engaged and learning while still providing review of the standard animal names for my children who were newer to learning English.

Reading tips:

  • By using identical phrasing on each page you can invite your children to say it with you: “Are you my mommy?” “No, I’m a ___(allow children to name the animal)__, and this is my baby calf.”
  • I like to use a different voice for each animal. It helps the children stay attentive.
  • Because this book is, to my knowledge, only available as a small board book, some older preschoolers may scoff at it as being for babies. Therefore, how you introduce this book is important. I like to tell the children I need their help naming the animals. Also, because the baby animal names were new to my class, I decided to read it on two days during our farm week. To prepare the children for this, I told them I was going to read the book today, and then a different day I would read it to them again to see if they remembered it. This way I didn’t get any “we already read that” complaints when I pulled the book out the second day.

2. Peek-a-Boo! Ocean

(Lift the flap)

Written and Illustrated by Jess StockhamPeek a Boo! Ocean and Peek a Boo! Safari by Jess Stockham

This series of books is right up there among my favourites. They are good-sized board books with only 5 page spreads each. The sad thing about these books, however, is that, to my knowledge, they are no longer in print. Also, since children are often rough on lift the flap books, they are quickly disappearing from my local library.

As a preschool teacher, I find that many children have trouble settling into our circle time routine during the first number of classes. Especially with my two year olds, I find it works best to start with songs for the first few weeks, then slowly transition to adding some books in those times of singing. These Peek-a-Boo books are excellent first books for circle time during that transition. With my two year olds, I might wait a month before beginning to introduce these books and then moving to other books, while for the three year olds I’d start with these books in the first week or two.

What’s so great about these books? Let me tell you. My favourite part is the way Jess Stockham has left little clues visible so the children can try to guess which animal is hiding behind the flap. For example, the children might be able to see the animal’s tail or ear. Another thing I appreciate about this book is how bold and simple the pictures are. On top of that, the flaps are large, nearly as large as the book.

Reading tips:

  • When you read the words, such as “Who’s ear is this?” Point to the place where you see the ear peeking out from behind the flap.
  • After opening the flap, your children might enjoy it if you tell them something about the animal, such as the sound it makes or where it lives, for example: “The polar bear lives at the North Pole where it is really cold.”

Other titles in this series include:

  • Peek-a-Boo! Safari
  • Peek-a-Boo! Forest
  • Peek-a-Boo! Jungle

3. Do You Want to Be My Friend?

Written and Illustrated by Eric CarleDo You Want To Be My Friend? by Eric Carle - review by S J Little

This nearly wordless picture book is a lot of fun for 3-4 year olds. Each page shows the tail of the animal you will see when you turn the next page. Children enjoy trying to guess which animal each tail belongs to. The book includes a wide variety of animals some of which my three year olds were not familiar with. The variety of animals would fit well with a zoo theme. When I tried this book with my two year olds, it seemed too long and the animals and their tails too tricky for guessing. Therefore, I’d recommend this one for 3-4 year olds.

Reading tips:

  • Only two of the pages have words on them. I typically end up repeating the same phrase on every page: “Do you want to be my friend?”
  • Wait a moment before turning the page and encourage the children to guess.

4. My First Peek-a-boo Animals

(Lift the flap)

Written and Illustrated by Eric CarleMy First Peek-a-boo Animals by Eric Carle - review by S J Little

This short book is unique. Each page has a four line poem giving clues to what animal might be hiding behind the flaps. The large flaps do not cover the entire animal leaving toes, tails, and maybe a nose sticking out. 2-4 year olds can enjoy this book, however, I would say that my two year olds were not able to guess based on the poems. Also, as a teacher at a preschool that uses typical themes, I find it hard to know which theme to use this book in. It has a random combobulation of animals from a lion, to a horse, to a butterfly, to a turtle, to an elephant and more. Still, regardless of what theme you put it under, this is an engaging book for preschoolers.

Reading tips:

  • Based on the age and development level of your children decide whether or not to read the poems. If you wanted, you could encourage the children to guess simply based on the visual clues sticking out from under the flap and read the poem after you’ve revealed the animal.

5. Dear Zoo

(Lift the flap or pop-up version)

Written and Illustrated by Rod Campbell

Dear Zoo by Rod Campbell

The simple repetitive words and basic storyline of this classic book make it excellent for youngsters. Only a couple of the pages have visual clues as to what animal is hiding making them hard to guess. Each animal has a description word, such as big, fierce, scary, jumpy, etc. These words could be used as clues to encourage guessing. They also enhance the learning side of this book as the children may not be familiar with some of the description words.

Reading Tips:

  • I highly recommend the pop-up version rather than the lift-the-flap as the pop-ups add tremendously to the excitement and engagement factor. However, note that the pop-up version is more likely to rip if left unsupervised in little hands.
  • One small group of 3-4 year olds I read this book to, enjoyed it so much that we read it several times in the first sitting. By the third or fourth time through, the children had memorized most of the animals and description words. They loved being able to fill in the words rather than hearing me read it.

6. Bugs From Head to Tail

Written by Stacey Roderick

Bugs From Head to Tail and other books in the series Written by Stacey Roderick, Illustrated by Kwanchai Moriya

Illustrated by Kwanchai Moriya

I highly recommend the Bugs and Ocean Animals books of this fairly recent series. Both books have a wide variety of animals some of which are familiar to most preschoolers and some of which will be new to them. While these books do not have flaps to lift, the pages have been cleverly designed so that on one page you see a part of an animal as a clue, such as their feet or tail, etc. Then you turn the page to find out what animal it is.

While I really enjoy the Bird book, most of the birds are far too specific for 2-3 year olds, unless the children have a specific interest in knowing unique animal names.

Reading Tips:

  • On the page that reveals which animal it is, the animal name is given as well as a lengthy blurb about that animal. The details in the blurb are targeted for a much older age group, therefore I entirely skip them. (Also, the dinosaur book’s blurbs are primarily based on speculations about the dinosaurs’ behaviours, not known facts, so I don’t read them.)

Other titles in this series include:

  • Dinosaurs From Head to Tail
  • Birds From Head to Tail
  • Ocean Animals From Head to Tail

7. I Spy Under the Sea

Written and Illustrated by Edward GibbsI Spy kid's guessing book series by Edward Gibbs

I was surprised how much my wiggly three year old class enjoyed this book! First, we look through a spy hole to see what’s on the next page. I read the clues, such as “my arms are called tentacles.” Then the children try to guess what animal it might be before I turn the page. My class guessed some of the animals easily while others they’d never heard of which kept the book from being boring for my more advanced children. While the artsy illustration style is not my favourite, my class had no problem with it.

To my knowledge, this series is available as hardback and board book.

Reading Tips:

  • Encourage the children to try guessing even if they’ve never heard of the animal. Be sure your response to their guesses is encouraging. Especially with the quieter children, when they gather the courage to voice a guess, be careful not to turn them off by laughing at their guess.
  • Read the book ahead of time so that you know what’s coming. That way you can provide extra clues. For example, when I read the Under the Sea book to my class, we’d seen clownfish on our field trip the week before which I was able to use as an added clue.

Other titles in this series include: (Each focuses on various preschool topics as listed below.)

  • I Spy With My Little Eye (colours and clues)
  • I Spy Under the Sea (clues and numbers)
  • I Spy Pets (food and clues)
  • I Spy in the Sky (colours, big/small describers, and clues)
  • I Spy on the Farm (colours, first letters, and animal sounds)

Interested in learning other ways to capture your young audience at storytime? Skim through these creative tips and ideas: Ways To Engage Preschoolers With Stories