How To Spin A Memorable Bedtime Story

“Can You Tell Me a Story?” How to Spin a Memorable, and Meaningful, Bedtime Story

For many families, a bedtime reading of "‘Twas the Night before Christmas" or Festival of Lights is an annual holiday tradition. But what about stories of the shy Christmas tree or the Hanukkah dreidel that got dizzy from spinning? According to experts at Bradley Hospital, original bedtime stories that mom or dad “make up” can actually play an important role in a child's development, and do much more than help the child go to sleep.

“Telling original bedtime stories isn't a hard skill to learn and it can boost your child's imagination and also help them form mental images from words, an essential skill for reading,” says Margaret Paccione-Dyzlewski, PhD, director of the department of behavioral education at Bradley Hospital. “They can also enhance a child's verbal skills and promote social-emotional learning, and it is a meaningful bonding activity for parent and child.”

An individually tailored bedtime story also can gently teach life lessons while offering some valuable insight into what the child may be feeling. “While some nights call for a silly story, some tales are opportunities for parents to incorporate morals that they want to teach their children, such as honesty, perseverance and faith — qualities that heroes in stories often use to resolve a conflict,” says Paccione-Dyzlewski.

The conflict in the story — a key storytelling element — can also be a way for parents to subtly address a problem their child may either be facing or can identify with. “A bully, for example, could be disguised as an angry storm or an annoying insect in the story,” she says. “The child's reaction to this character, or the situation the character is in, could be very telling in terms of his or her own experience with the situation or how they would overcome this issue.”

It's possible a child may ask questions during the story or even contribute to the storytelling, a good sign that he or she is engaged and interested. “Using imagination and words to add to the story or ask questions is a much more meaningful developmental exercise for a child than simply listening to a story,” Paccione-Dyzlewski adds. “This is also a perfect prompt for parents to have meaningful discussions with the child about their questions or why they suggested a particular change.”

StorytellingStumped about how to “make up” a good story? Most stories have a similar blueprint: a setting and location (whether it's real or fantasy), characters (including a hero/protagonist - be it a human, animal or a physical object - a child can identify with), a conflict and a resolution. Fill in these blanks and a plot will emerge. Other tips for telling bedtime stories include:

  • Time phrases, such as “"Once upon a time",” or “"Long, long ago",” can help get a story off the ground.
  • Keep it fun. If parents want to weave in a “serious” topic like bullying or moving to a new home, don't bog the story down or make it too serious. Give the characters silly names or have the story take place in a funny location, such as the surface of the moon or a gingerbread forest. Subtlety goes a long way.

  • Give the child an opportunity to direct the story. Involve him or her in making up the plot or naming the characters.

  • Hit a roadblock in telling the story and not sure where to go next? Ask the child for input: “What do you think happens next?”

  • Be silly. Use different voices for the characters and be demonstrative or dramatic with hand gestures.

  • Make eye contact with the child throughout the story.

  • Children are not looking for polished, professional stories. It's the connection with their parents that they are most interested in.

For parents still feeling a little gun-shy, Paccione-Dyzlewski suggests trying to tell original bedtime stories for one month, alternating with traditional picture book stories, and see how the child reacts. “The holidays are a perfect time to test drive your storytelling skills; you have dozens of ready-made characters and a variety of settings to choose from that your child will already be familiar with,” she says. “This could be the beginning of a new holiday tradition with your child.” Editor's note: Some information provided by


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