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Children engaging with a story-time session hosted in a library

Museum blog: Fun, facts and fiction

Friday 29 November 2019

'It’s a dragon!' yell dozens of toddlers in packed out libraries across Westminster, Kensington & Chelsea.

This summer, musical storyteller Rosie Adediran teamed up with some talented RCM students to create a brand new story-time session inspired by a Chinese bell from the RCM collections. Targeted at families with young children, we took our story on the road to libraries in the local area. We hardly knew what to expect, but we found families returned multiple times and were still singing our songs as they walked out the door.

Using heritage as inspiration for story sessions is about finding that perfect balance between fun, facts and fiction. Our goal was to help our audience, whatever their age, engage with and better understand one of our objects through a story that mixes truth with creative license and a lot of entertainment!

So what did we learn about creating good stories and songs for families with early years children? Here’s a few of our top tips and experiences.


1: An engaging narrative

In the forest was a tree
The biggest of them all
One that nobody would dare to climb
For fear that they would fall
Hidden in the branches
Was a bell
No ordinary bell
There’s something inside this bell
Sleeping soundly
A creature so still
Is he alive?
He’s got a scaly back and a roar like fire!

Stories for early years often keep to one fairly simple narrative arc. In our story, a little Chinese girl called Ching Ching bravely climbs the tallest tree in the forest to ring the magic bell and wake the dragon from his sleep, bringing good luck back to her village.

There was plenty of opportunity for everyone to get involved in the story, either through the songs or the dialogue. Interaction is so important because, as well as wanting the children to enjoy themselves, we want to help them develop their listening and communication skills, and improve their concentration and memory.

For us, the most precious moments of interaction in our story were those where we were able to create a sense of wonder and mystery. During the story, our main character Ching Ching needs help, and asks everyone how to make the bell ring and wake the dragon. On every occasion the children entered into this problem solving situation as if Ching Ching and the villagers lives really depended on it! In these moments you know you’ve managed to fully engage them in your narrative.


2: Creative songs and music

Getting children settled in a new environment with new people can be very difficult. Children can start to grumble and their attention move elsewhere. To combat this, Rosie and our musicians used this 'getting settled' time as an opportunity to say hello and have some one-to-one moments with the children. Playing a gentle Chinese folk song to set up the theme of the story, they allowed the babies to hear the instruments up close, and the toddlers took turns to play Rosie’s tongue drum.

Mums and babies sessions usually consists of a lot of well-known nursery rhymes, but we wanted our session to be a bit different. As our story was set in China, Rosie cleverly composed a number of beautiful songs based on a pentatonic scale. She worked contrast into the songs, going from a jazzy, upbeat tune to something gentle and soft. Every song had an opportunity for interaction, whether joining in with some singing, or learning some actions.

Our RCM musicians added musical drama to the story with atmospheric sounds. When we were climbing, they used ascending melodies to help us really feel we were getting higher and higher. When we were in the creepy forest, they made lots of strange sounds with their instruments.

Of course, having a whole set of entirely new songs would have been quite a big change for mums and toddlers who are only familiar with a small set of nursery rhymes. Rosie chose an easy-to-learn Israeli folk song called Zum gali gali about working in the fields with adapted words to help the children really empathise with the villagers and the bad luck they were having. She also used the traditional nursery rhyme Mary had a little lamb with new, easy words that the children could sing to Ching Ching.


3: Plenty of props and puppets

Story sessions really come alive for children with the right choice of materials. For ours, a carpet of green velvet covered in leafy branches with ivy hanging overhead helped set the forest scene. One of the sessions took place on one of those summer days when temperatures reached well above 30 degrees, and the leafy branches were a marvellous makeshift fan for children and adults alike to cool themselves down! They also had a chance to wave Chinese flags, shake egg shakers, all of which helped them to stay engaged in a tactile way.

The sleeping dragon is revealed halfway through our story. We found a particularly beautiful hand puppet and it was amazing to watch children interact with it and tread that fine line of reality, wondering “is he just a puppet or is he really alive?”

4: Highlighting our heritage

Ching Ching reaches the top of the tree but can’t see our Chinese bell. Where is it? She starts to look under leaves and branches. Using a hide-and-seek game set to a musical chant - 'is it under this one, this one, this one...?' - we eventually uncover the ‘magic’ bell under a pile of ivy leaves. This game really helped give our heritage a sense of drama, of being something special that we’ve all discovered together.

We faced a similar challenge when making our bell ring. This particular bell is decorated with dragons but doesn’t have a clapper inside (the part that swings inside to make the bell ring). Instead it would have been struck with a wooden mallet. Rosie thought the best way to help the children engage with the bell was to make it playful. How can Ching Ching make the bell ring? Children reached into a ‘lucky dip’ bag to pull out flowers, leaves, and other soft props to try to ring the bell, whilst we sing “will he snore or will he roar”? None of the objects have any affect until a child pulls out a wooden mallet. Might this work? It does! Actively involving the children in resolving the storyline makes the moment when the dragon is woken by the bell so much more special.


5: A good value experience

Young families get so much out of storytime sessions. It isn’t just about stimulating imagination and play for children, but also creating a friendly, inclusive space for parents and carers to meet up, mingle and make new friends. Most importantly, it’s about using stories and music in a creative way to support meaningful engagement between a parent and their child, and helping them to share this experience with others.

Being able to draw inspiration from a collection of musical heritage helped us to breathe new life into the storytime format, and kick started a creative process that lead to new stories and new music.

For any readers who lead these kinds of sessions regularly, I hope our experience has encouraged you to see the value in what you are doing. If you are looking to develop your own practice, we recommend trying out one of these ideas: take inspiration from a new source and/or have a go at creating an original story or song to spice up the familiar format!

As for our project, we’ll be featuring these musical storytime sessions as part of our new learning programme when we re-launch our Museum in 2020.


Lydia Baldwin
Museum Learning & Participation Officer


The Story Makers project is funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. These sessions were delivered in partnership with RBKC and WCC Council, marketed as part of RCM Sparks Summer Music offer.