Whenever I think about storytelling, I recall my first teaching position and how I learned what children really see as a story is read. During the early seventies I was a young, inexperienced teacher, full of energy and excitement for my job. I loved the children in my class and looked forward to sharing my knowledge with them. One day, I asked the children to come and sit near my “reading chair” (since I thought that was the place all stories must be told). I was in great condition to entertain my children, too. My long brown hair was caught up in a ponytail and mounted with a very large hairpiece of curls. My eyes were accented with luxuriously long fake eyelashes and my artificial nails were painted bright red. As memory serves me, some 27 years later, I was a sight to behold. A teacher every child would love. And, that goes without saying I had on a darling, short, purple dress with a really big gold buckle on it. Since I had received my first paycheck recently, I also had on my new purple hosiery and my new purple suede shoes, each of which also had a large gold buckle.
The children sat in a circle around my feet as I began the story about a very special day in the lives of three bears. Some of the children had heard the story before, but it was evident that they could hardly wait to hear it again. Without delay, I started to read The Three Bears with great enthusiasm. I held the book next to my then tiny waist, so it was visible to all of the children (I have since learned to hold the book, when possible, near my face so that as the story is read the children focus on my mouth and the sounds being produced.). As I read, I also exaggerated the dialogue of each bear. I had the baby voice really high and the daddy voice really low!
Now, you have to remember that I was really into the telling of this story. I hope my description tells you just how “in” I thought I was and how much I thought my darling children must love me since I was young, fresh from college, and of course beautiful and stylish. Anyway, back to the purple suede shoes. As I read the story, I crossed my legs so that the top leg (covered with pretty hosiery and capped with a fine purple suede shoe with a gold buckle) swung in rhythm with the story. I continued reading, but I began to notice that the children were frequently distracted. Suddenly, I felt something strange on my leg.
To my horror, my precious babies had scooted closer to me so they might stroke, with their tiny, chubby hands, my pretty purple hosiery and my fine purple suede shoes with the big gold buckles. It was at that moment I realized that the story wasn’t holding their attention. It was not my beauty or my wonderful storytelling. They were enamored with the silkiness of the purple hosiery, the scent of leather, and the blinding shine of the gold buckle on my shoe as it swung back and forth. This was one of those moments when everything seems suspended in time and you see life with such clarity that you wonder why this pentacle of knowledge had not come to your attention sooner.
On this day I learned a valuable lesson, a lesson that I have never forgotten. Children see the world differently from adults. These children were focusing on what was at their eye level, not at what was being shown three feet over their heads. They were focusing on my hosiery and shoes, not on the story or the characters.They were not “seeing” the story the way I thought they were. But they were using all of the wonderful skills children use to learn. They were touching, feeling, smelling (I hope not tasting!), and listening to the swish of this mass of purple as it swung in rhythm to the story. But most of all, they were seeing what was in front of them, at their level.
Many years have passed. The hairpiece, nails, eyelashes, and seventy-ish clothing have been replaced by comfortable dresses and slacks, rubber-soled shoes, and support hose. But, I have never forgotten that moment in my life. I relish in telling my early childhood education students about this experience when I talk to them about reading to children and how they must try to “see” the story through the eyes of their children rather than through their own. And, I still chuckle to myself at how my purple suede shoes helped me to gain a better understanding of children.
Kathy Fite, Ed.D., is a well-known speaker, researcher, and writer in the area of early childhood development. She is currently a professor of education at Southwest University in San Marcos, Texas.