Storytelling within a family setting is fundamental for the development of children’s communication, language and literacy skills, which in turn has a profound impact on their social, emotional and educational development. Shared storytelling activities can promote relationship building between parents and their children, develop creative exploration and reduces stress.
Parents are not always confident storytellers, particularly when moving beyond reading a book aloud. Our Storytelling: Grow Your Own Adventure project is focused on how digital technologies may support parents and children to engage in rich, personalised and open-ended storytelling activities. We are interested in active storytelling – storytelling that involves role play, the use of prompts, resources and materials that can be used to act out sections of the story, or engage in creative activities that break out from it. We would like to help parents become more confident storytellers and to support children to become active partners in story creation. We also recognise that our research could support professionals who engage in creative storytelling practice with children in community settings, such as libraries or theatres.
We are now halfway through the project and have, so far built and tested three ‘storytelling assistant’ prototypes, which explore a range of interactive technologies, such as voice assistants and touch-screen interaction. Our design approach considers a range of issues: the role a digital assistant might take, the role of sound elements and creating branching and open-ended stories. For example, we are exploring flexible roles, where the storytelling assistant might take the lead on telling (voicing) a story or a parent or child could decide to lead and the assistant would take a back seat. To promote active play, the storytelling assistant is designed to suggest activities at key points in a story for parents and their children to undertake and ask questions where their responses change what happens next. We use different layers of sound, such as speech, sound effects and music to create rich sound worlds that respond to the unfolding story. Our prototypes have also explored methods for re-purposing traditional fairy tales making them interactive and more open ended. We also probed how a digital storytelling assistant could be used to prompt parents and children to create new stories themselves.
In addition to our prototyping, we conducted some workshops with parents to understand their everyday storytelling practice and their access to, and familiarity with different technology. We also presented one of our prototypes to gather their feedback and thoughts about it. We were particularly interested to learn where the challenges were for engaging in active storytelling and how a digital storytelling assistant might fit in with daily routines.
We learned that storytelling is a highly individual and culturally guided activity. Parents use storytelling in a multitude of ways. For some it is about supporting their children’s schoolwork, whereas others make up stories in the moment, in the form of parables for moral guidance. There was a tension in what parents considered to be storytelling verses play. Our intention of promoting active storytelling (e.g., role play, props and playful activities) may not naturally fit into established family routines; as for many, storytelling takes place at bedtime, where a relaxed environment is to be encouraged, rather than a playful one.
The use of voice interaction technology proves to be challenging as course-grained voice interaction does not fit well with nuanced storytelling, particularly if you want to make stories open-ended or personal. Parents also expressed that they did not like the synthesized voice, but they did however, like the use of music and sound effects.
We are now looking ahead to the design of our final prototype – a ‘take home’ resource connected to specific in-public events aimed at children, young people and their parents. The Grow Your Adventure project collaborates with community practitioners Makers of Imaginary Worlds, who create immersive installations and experiences for families, and storytelling practitioner Sarah Valstar-West, who works across several community settings, such as schools and theatres. It is commonplace for practitioners such as these to create take-home activity packs for children to engage with post-event. We envisage our digital storytelling assistant to take on this format, with interactive content created by the practitioners that builds upon the story world and characters featured in their public events that children and parents can explore and create stories around at home. This approach, we hope, will anchor story creation at home to the shared experiences of these events and thus act as a platform and stimulus for creative exploration.