Susan Perrow shares why “stories know the way”
The universe began as a story… we are part human, part stories1
The importance of stories and storytelling has been understood and worked with since the beginning of recorded history. Anthropologists have long observed the importance and popularity of stories in every culture. Joseph Campbell, through his extensive study of world mythology, states that our cultural myths
work upon us, whether consciously or unconsciously, as energy-releasing, life-motivating and directing agents… Whenever men have looked for something solid on which to found their lives, they have chosen not the facts in which the world abounds, but the myths of an immemorial imagination..2
The traditional and very important role of the storyteller was to preserve this rich mythology. Not just a source of entertainment, the wealth of stories taught moral and history lessons to adults and children alike, and kept (and still keep) complex traditions alive. The indigenous people of my own country, Australia, confirm the importance of stories in keeping their culture alive and healthy.
The great spiritual and religious teachers of the world have used ‘story’ as a way of passing on their spiritual truth. When asked why he spoke to the people in parables, Jesus answered that this was the way for the mysteries of heaven to be known (Matt. 13:10, 34–5). Zen and Sufi stories today are well loved and used for their wise and succinct messages.
Holistic value of stories
Stories have a quality or power that can touch our souls, touch our hearts – they seem to be able to reach us, move us, heal us, on many levels.
Many prominent psychologists today understand the story as a way of exploring the unconscious and a tool for making us ‘whole’. In his book Re-Visioning Psychology, James Hillman stresses the importance of experiencing myths “working intrapsychically within our fantasies, and then through them into our ideas, systems of ideas, feeling-values, moralities, and basic styles of consciousness”.3 Clarissa Pinkola Estes, in her book Women Who Run with the Wolves, recognises the healing power of storytelling, describing stories as “medicine”.4 Twelve-step recovery programmes and the new discipline of journal therapy understand and work with the transforming, holistic power of storytelling.
Storytelling involves three main components: the story, the storyteller and the story listener(s). One way of studying another culture is through listening to the cultural stories. One way of getting to know another person is by listening to their personal stories. Storytelling is part of all of us; it connects us with each other. It is an integral part of being human.
Imagination and learning
Storytelling as a teaching technique works with the more expressive, imaginative ‘way of knowing’ or form of intelligence. Until recently this ‘other’ way or form has lacked academic support as a valid ‘intelligence’. But the last 30 or more years has seen a cognitive revolution of such major proportions that modern learning theories now incorporate anything from two to eight intelligences or ‘ways of knowing’.5
It is beyond the scope of this article to examine any of these learning theories in detail. However, central to a rationale for the importance of storytelling in any learning society is the acknowledgement of a more holistic view of the realm of human cognition and, in particular, imagination as a way of learning and knowing.
Einstein believed so strongly in the education of the imagination that he recommended children be told fairy tales, and more fairy tales!
Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination circles the world.6
The story form as a central teaching tool – the revival of old wisdom!
In his book Teaching as Storytelling, Kieran Egan, a Canadian educator, claims that imagination is the most powerful tool for learning that children bring with them to school. However, to date there has been very little research focused on it because, according to Egan, it is so difficult to grasp, difficult to research. He states that the dominant learning theories that have profoundly influenced modern educators have almost entirely ignored the use of children’s imagination as a teaching and learning tool.
The Canadian government is now backing Egan’s planning model for teaching and learning based on principles that use and stimulate children’s imagination, using the story form as a central teaching tool. According to Egan, the story “reflects a basic and powerful form in which we make sense of the world and experience”.7 His aim with his story-centred curriculum is to reconstruct curricula and teaching methods in light of a richer image of the child as an imaginative as well as a logico-mathematical thinker.8
Steiner education, one of the largest independent school movements in the world today, also acknowledges the importance of the child’s imagination in learning and uses a story-based curriculum for most subjects. Rudolf Steiner described imagination as “a new beginning, a germ or seed drawing upon the future” (in comparison to cognition, an “end product”) and urged teachers to bring to the child as many imaginations as possible to help with continuous, holistic growth and development.9
It seems important to acknowledge here that both the above models, although ‘new’ to the modern Western world, are drawing on the wise and ancient art of storytelling. With a growing knowledge of the rich history of storytelling throughout cultures worldwide, it is now understood that the above models are not new discoveries but, hopefully, timely revivals!
My ‘Story Doctor’ journey
It was in the early 1970s that I was first introduced to storytelling. I was privileged to work in the Steiner school system where my teaching style was greatly enriched by the story-centred curriculum. I had also spent time in Africa ,where I had experienced traditional cultures that wove stories into every aspect of their lives, for all ages of their community. This encouraged me to further experiment with working with the ‘power of story’, both with my own children and in my work as a teacher.
One of my most successful experiences as a parent was a story about a handmade doll called Cloudboy that helped to wrest my youngest boy (at the impressionable age of 5) out of the clutches of the commercialised Masters of the Universe warrior dolls. I used the power of story to fight the modern commercial ‘monster’ that encroaches relentlessly into our homes and private lives. Cloudboy then became my son’s closest companion and was part of our family life for many years – he even features in the family photo album. He is now in my son’s own home, awaiting children to come and play with him.
Stories can be a very effective tool today in addressing specific and general behaviour challenges in children, and there seems to be more and more need for such tools in our complex modern lives. I began working in a concentrated way with this tool in a role with the Australian government from 2001 to 2003, piloting Creative Parent Support Programmes. This work often involved home visits to families where I observed difficult situations and then wrote a story (often feeling like a ‘story doctor’) to help heal the difficult behaviour. The work then extended into running Creative Discipline Courses for parents and teachers, where the participants were encouraged to use imaginative approaches (songs, poems, stories…) to handle discipline challenges. The home visits plus the workshops have produced some very successful results, confirming for me, the parents and the teachers the place for metaphor and story in child-rearing practices.
As the years have rolled by, I have become more and more interested in using ‘medicinal’ stories in my teaching. At first, when I started on my ‘Story Doctor’ journey, I experienced the use of story in healing relatively common behaviour challenges – for example, encouraging groups of children to use the bins and not throw litter in the school grounds (Grandmother and the Donkey); and helping some very restless 4-year-olds learn to enjoy being sometimes still (Little Red Pony)!
Then I experimented with writing stories for specific behaviours – for example, working with metaphor, repetition and rhyme for a 5-year-old who was still soiling his pants (a story about Farmer Just Right with his repeated slogan, “a place for everything and everything in its place”); helping the smallest child in a kindergarten group feel important for being the smallest (The Littlest Bubble); helping a child understand and cope with a recent fire at home where he watched his own bedroom burn to the ground (Mother Rabbit and the Bushfire); using metaphor and story for a child and mother suffering from separation anxiety (Baby Bear Koala).
Today my work is focused on collecting, collating and writing therapeutic stories, and running workshops to encourage others to write therapeutic stories. From many positive experiences with the power of story over the last 30 years, with both children and adults, I passionately believe that, more often than not, stories know the way! I am excited with this current task in my life: developing the art of therapeutic (healing) storytelling for challenging behaviour and challenging situations. I am also exploring the use of healing stories for global and national challenging situations – see the example, The Rose and the Thorn, written for the children of Norway after the island shoot-out in 2011, and inspired by the images of the Rose Marches that were held in Oslo following this tragic incident.
Healing stories, working with imaginative journeys and the mystery and magic of metaphor, have the potential to shift an out-of-balance behaviour or situations back into wholeness or balance. Healing stories can address a range of issues – from unruly behaviour to grieving, anxiety, lack of confidence, bullying, teasing, nightmares, intolerance, inappropriate talk, toileting, bedwetting and much more. Healing stories also have the potential for nurturing positive values and building emotional resilience and character.
In April and May 2012 I will be touring the UK running workshops on this subject – see programme below. I invite you to participate in one of these days with me, in a programme where you will be encouraged to create your own therapeutic stories, using handy tips, exercises and methods such as my metaphor, journey and resolution framework. We will also explore the use of healing stories for global and national challenges. I hope to meet you at one of my workshops.
- Okri, B. (1996, p.22). Birds of Heaven. London: Phoenix.
- Campbell, J. (1987, pp.4–5). The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology. New York: Arkana.
- Hillman, J. (1975, p.103). Re-Visioning Psychology. New York: Harper & Row.
- Estes, C.P. (1992). Women Who Run with the Wolves: Contacting the Power of the Wild Woman. London: Rider.
- Blakeslee, T.R. (1980). The Right Brain: A New Understanding of the Unconscious Mind and Its Creative Powers. London: Macmillan; Bruner, J. (1986). Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Cambridge: Harvard University Press; Buck, R. (1984). The Communication of Emotion. New York: Guilford; Steiner, R. (1981). Study of Man. London: Rudolf Steiner Press; Gardner, H. (1996). Probing more deeply into the theory of Multiple Intelligences. NASSP Bulletin, 80 (583) (Nov), 1–7.
- Viereck, G.S. (1929). What Life Means to Einstein. The Saturday Evening Post, Oct 26th, p.6.
- Egan, K. (1988, p.2). Teaching as Storytelling. London: Routledge.
- Related websites: www.educ.sfu.ca/kegan; www.ierg.net
- Steiner, R. (1981, p.5). Study of Man. London: Rudolf Steiner Press.
Susan Perrow has been writing stories for 30 years as a parent, teacher and counsellor. Her two books are Healing Stories for Challenging Behaviour, Hawthorn Press, and Therapeutic Storytelling: 101 Healing Stories for Children, Hawthorn Press (published in the UK in April 2012). www.healingthroughstories.com
UK WORKSHOP TOUR – SUSAN PERROW – APRIL/MAY 2012
|Sat 14 April||Therapeutic Storytelling9am to 5pm
|Rahenwood Steiner National SchoolTuamgraney, Co. Clare
|Sinead Duignan firstname.lastname@example.org
+353 (0)61 927944
|Sun 15 April||Tapestry of Discipline10am to 5pm||Rahenwood Steiner National SchoolTuamgraney, Co. Clare
+353 061 927944
|Tue 17 April & Wed 18 April||Therapeutic Storytelling (continued over two mornings)9.30am to 12.30pm||Bridge Camphill CommunityKilcullen, Co. Kildare||Mary Whelan
+353 (0)45 481597
|Sat 21April||Therapeutic Storytelling 9am to 5pm||Steiner House35 Park Road, London NW1 6XT||Sarah Houghton
020 7733 4020
|Sun 22 April||Therapeutic Storytelling 9am to 5pm||Steiner House35 Park Road, London NW1 6XT
020 7733 4020
|Thu 26 April||The Healing Power of Story: An introductory workshop for parents 9.15am to 12.45pm||Centre for Science and ArtLandsdown, Stroudemail@example.com +44 (0)1453 757040|
|Fri 27 April||Therapeutic Storytelling 9.15am to 5pm||Centre for Science and ArtLandsdown, Stroudfirstname.lastname@example.org +44 (0)1453 757040|
|Sat 28 April||Tapestry of Discipline9am to 4pm||Centre for Science and ArtLandsdown, Stroudemail@example.com +44 (0)1453 757040|
|Sun 6 May||Therapeutic Storytelling 9am to 5pm||Exeter Steiner School80, Merrivale Road, Exeter||Kneace Dalyexetersteinerschool@
+44 (0)1392 427200
|Fri 11 May||Talk: Our Children, Our Most Precious Resource: The challenge of allowing children their childhood” 8pm||Edinburgh Steiner School Hall60 Spylaw Road, Edinburgh EH10 5BR||Caroline Glasc.firstname.lastname@example.org
+44 (0)1620 880382
|Sat 12 May||Therapeutic Storytelling 9am to 5pm||Edinburgh Steiner SchoolKindergarten Room
60 Spylaw Road, Edinburgh EH10 5BR
+44 (0)1620 880382
|Sat 19 May||Therapeutic Storytelling 10am to 4.30pm||Ruth Kirkpatrick’s home:
North Lodge, Glencorse House,
Penicuik EH26 0NZ
+44 (0)131 4451507
+44 (0)7939 264228
|Sat 26 May & Sun 27 May||Tapestry of DisciplineSat 9am to 4pm
Sun 9am to 5pm
|Moray Steiner SchoolClovenside Road, Forres IV36 2RD||Steve Sharpe Corriden, Tolbooth Street,Forres
+44 (0)1309 672537
+44 (0)7719 900925
The Rose and the Thorn
A story written for the children of Norway after the island shoot-out in 2011, and inspired by the images of the Rose Marches that were held in Oslo following this tragic incident.
(extract from Therapeutic Storytelling: 101 Healing Stories for Children, Hawthorn Press, 2012)
There was once a prince and a princess who lived in a castle surrounded by a beautiful garden. In this garden grew many kinds of flowers, but the most beautiful of all was the rose bush. This rose bush was like no other – it had one perfect red rose that never seemed to grow old. And it had a smooth green stem and smooth green branches without any thorns.
People came from far and wide to look at such perfection… a rose without thorns that never seemed to die! Every day the prince and princess would walk through their garden and stop to give thanks for the wonder and beauty of this rose.
However, deep in the rose bush, hiding far down inside the stem, there was a long sharp thorn that was bursting to find its way out. It had been living in the rose bush for a very long time and slowly, slowly, slowly, it was making its way to the top. As it travelled up through the green stem it knocked against the woody edges but these were too strong for the thorn to push through.
Then one day the long sharp thorn reached the top of the bush, where the soft red rose sat shining in the sun. Here was an easy doorway for the long sharp thorn! It pierced right through the heart of the red rose and came out into the daylight.
As the thorn broke through the heart of the rose, all the red petals fell off and fluttered to the ground. When the prince and princess were walking in their garden later that day they were shocked with what they found. Their beautiful red rose had died, all its petals had been blown across the garden and the stem and branches were withered and brown. The only thing left shining in the late afternoon light was one silver thorn, pointing high to the sky.
The prince and princess quickly called for the castle gardeners to come and dig out the dead rose bush. Then they returned to the castle to mourn the loss of the beautiful red rose. That night a heavy fog settled down upon the gardens.
However, the next morning, the fog had disappeared, and the day dawned clear and bright. When the prince and princess looked out of their castle window a most wondrous sight met their eyes. Everywhere that a rose petal had landed in the garden a rose bush had taken root, had grown tall and strong and was budding with rose flowers.
As the sun climbed across the sky, each of the new rose buds opened its petals to the light. There were many different roses of many different perfumes and many different colours – yellow, orange, blue, purple, pink, red and white. The prince and princess walked out into the garden with joy and hope in their hearts and people came from far and wide to give thanks for the wonder and beauty of the roses.