Headstart for Life

Fostering Narrative Development Through Play

Welcome back to HeadStart For Life’s Blog, Beyond Therapy!

In my previous post, we talked about the different types of stories that children tell, and a variety of strategies we can use to help them develop their narrative skills. You can find the link here.

Narrative skills are the ability to use language to tell a story. By the time that most children reach the age of 3 or 4 years, they can tell many kinds of stories, such as autobiography, fiction, and reports, that they have heard at some point in their lives before. They can tell stories with other people, and to other people.

Telling a story is an inherently complex task as it requires high levels of language and cognition skills. In the midst of telling a story, the child must plan what he or she is going to say, organise his or her thoughts to be both temporally sequenced and meaningful, as well as incorporate creative elements in order to keep the listener interested and involved.


How is it that children, being born with no language, let alone narrative skills, develop and pick up the rudiments of storytelling within the first 2 – 3 years?

Cheerful smiling child at the blackboard. School concept

The most amount of time that a young child spends on is play. Just as grammatical structure is embedded in the early play actions and routines of young children, the elements of storytelling are also implicit in the play scenarios of toddlers.

Creative expressions start from an early age. Children express creativity through pretend play – an activity that involves using imagination and make-believe. They make up stories and ideas “from scratch” and use props like blocks or sticks to represent different ideas and objects. For example, a block becomes a telephone or monster.

faciliated play

Even though young children may not provide an extensive description of their play, they can still be enacting a narrative with their actions. For instance, a 20-month-old toddler is playing with two figurines, a baby doll and a mommy doll. The baby doll falls off the chair and the toddler comments, “Oh no! Baby crying!”. Thereafter, the toddler makes mommy doll give a kiss to the baby doll or even put on a plaster for the baby doll. In this manner, the toddler is actually enacting a series of events with his or her gestures. There is a narrative form embedded within the child’s play gestures. The actions have an underlying theme that is meaningful. There are characters, emotions and an ending in the story.

toddler in play

It has been shown that children engage in this kind of symbolic play more and in richer ways when they do it with a facilitating adult, usually a parent or caregiver. Therefore, adults can make use of play to incorporate simple story elements and promote imagination in their children’s minds.

1.Describing the play actions

The adult can provide the language for the series of actions in the child’s play. For example, the adult describes what the child is doing in each action, “Oh no! Baby fell down. It is painful! Baby is crying! Mommy gives baby a plaster. Baby is feeling better!” At the same time, the adult is also highlighting the characters, problem and resolution, which are key elements that make up a story.

2.Introducing new characters and events

Other than being the “narrator”, the adult can also join in and play together with the child by introducing a new character in the play. For example, if the child is playing house with a boy doll, the adult takes another doll and introduces it as the daddy doll. At the same time, the adult can also introduce a new event. Daddy doll comes home with a present for the boy doll because it is the boy’s birthday. This can then evolve to become the central theme of the play, as daddy doll and boy doll have a birthday celebration together.

3.Modelling logical flow of events

By expanding your child’s play skills, you are also creating an awareness of how your child can link an event to another in a chronological manner, just like how every well-developed story will have a beginning, middle and end. If the child is stuck at a single step, such as feeding the doll, the adult can introduce new materials, such as a school bag and a bus. This will encourage the child to move on to the next sequence in play, such as the doll going to school.

4.Incorporating emotions in the characters

By introducing vocabulary associated with feelings, the adult can highlight mental states important in conveying the character’s emotions and thought processes. For example, as the child is making the doll go down the slide, the adult can comment, “Whee! It’s so fun!”, so as to highlight that the doll is excited to play on the slide.

5.Creating problems and generating solutions

The adult can also intentionally create problems in the child’s play. For example, while the child is playing with farm animals, the adult may introduce a problem, such as a wolf entering the farm and attacking the animals. The adult can then guide the child on how to resolve the problem, such as by making the farmer chase the wolf away or lock it up in a cage.

Young mother and her toddler girl playing together with finger toys

Use your imagination, be animated, and have fun with your little ones! You will be surprised by how much they will love the interaction with you.

Remember, stories need not only come in the form of books!

Thank you for reading and stay tuned for our next post at Beyond Therapy!



Bruner, J. (1986). Actual minds, possible worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Fiestas & Peña, E.D. (2004). Narrative discourse in bilingual children: Language and task effects. Language, Speech and Hearing Services in Schools, 35, 155-168.

Paul, R., Hernandez, R., Taylor, L., & Johnson, K. (1996). Narrative development in late talkers: Early school age. Journal of Speech and Hearing Research 39, 1295-1303.


"All the information on this site is for educational purposes only and does not replace the assessment and intervention of a registered speech-language pathologist, occupational therapist or any other medical or education professional."

About Danica

Danica believes that working together with parents and professionals will uncover the full potential that every child possesses. She is thankful for the opportunities to work together with each child and their families, and feels privileged for being able to witness and celebrate every step of progress that the child makes along the way.

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