Bristol & The South West

email :
  Linkedin Rosie Strain

Adventures in Therapeutic Storymaking

"When Stories nestle in the body, soul comes forth" – Deena Metzger, Storyteller and Author.

How We Began

Therapeutic Storymaking at St Christopher's began in August 2007. Initially planned as a summer holiday activity, it was organised to provide an opportunity for each house to share a creative communal activity which encouraged playful interaction, fun and developed confidence in the children and carers.

Having worked as both a carer and a team leader I strongly support the need to further develop meaningful and engaging relationships between staff and youngster, using the creative arts as a tool for expressive and alternative ways of communicating.

The popularity and success of the sessions during that summer evidenced both a need and a desire for Storymaking to become a weekly therapeutic activity for those who could most benefit from its creative contribution. There are now 3-4 weekly sessions happening across the school: 2 'closed' groups (youngster's for whom this is their designated activity) a session for Westbury House and individual sessions for some pupils.

Together, we create narratives, images and characters which take their form from the impulse of the youngster's play; using our bodies, voices, sensory objects and fabrics to explore and role-play environments, animals and everything in between. Using familiar form and ritual (such as songs and verses) the sessions offer support and learning through the expressive arts in a safe and open environment.

The Way We Work

On a basic level, the sessions are a form of Intensive Interaction*, creative communication that enables the youngsters to explore and expand their imaginative and sensory development. Through play staff are encouraged to enter into the pupil's world and interact in their 'language' gaining a better understanding of their experience.

Initially, we focus on establishing a sense of safety and trust within the group by exploring boundaries, becoming familiar with each other, being honest and open and sharing our experiences. Time is invested in simply playing creatively together through imagination and improvisation, games and exercises, expanding on known stories and learning how to play in a more uninhibited way.

Both group and individual sessions start with a song and a practice we call 'check-in'. This serves to allow each person to share any current feelings (physical or emotional), concerns, reservations and any important or difficult events they may have recently experienced. This may be excitement about a personal occasion or needing a group hug because of sadness they might feel. The songs in turn serve as a marker for the pupils to know that the session has begun or finished.

We then either explore one or more articles from a circle or box of sensory materials (fabrics/costumes, wool, tubes and rattles) using our imagination to share with the others what we have chosen for the story. For example, a piece of wool becomes a cloud or a sheep, a tube transforms into a pirate's telescope or an umbrella. This has various purposes; to create a ritual at the start which marks the beginning of the session, to introduce an element of imagination, to help any creatively shy people and to provide a starting point for the story's narrative. We alldo this as we allhave an investment in the story and are all equal in the group. We end the session in the same way and thank/return the items, costumes or characters by putting them back in the circle or box.

The Places We Go

This is where the real fun begins! Using the chosen materials, we start to create narratives and journeys, bringing them to life with our imaginations, voices and bodies and with MAKATON where we are able.  On some occasions, time is given to each pair (youngster and carer) to play together first, allowing any images, characters or ideas to emerge.  Other times we simply dive straight in. Our story starts by asking questions; what we can see around us? What are the pupils doing? What can the materials in the room become? What ideas are popping into our heads?

Characters and Animals: What are the children's actions, movements and sounds? If there's a lot of hopping, can they be a frog in the story? If they are enthusiastically rifling through drawers or looking around the room, could they be a curious explorer? What sort of character could we be if we joined them? Can we continue with the images that we've explored already?Seasons & Atmospheres: What's the weather like outside? How are we affected by it? What's the youngster's favourite season and why? Can we play with elements from that season? Does our story start on a dark stormy night or maybe a bright sunny afternoon among falling leaves?Environments: Does the pupil like particular places? Forests and Jungles or Train Stations and Cafe's? Could we start the story in a car or a train? What might capture their interest?

We are never looking for elaborate, complex or detailed fairytales. Neither do our stories need to be 'narratively correct' with clear beginnings and endings. The object is not to create something fantastical that could be published but to play creatively with the impulse of each person and see what emerges. We each share the 'telling' of our story as we contribute our imagination to it.

Working with the senses also gives us a greater awareness of the pupil's experience and how they perceive the world. Thematically the group is usually very flexible with each session exploring themes rooted in present experience such as seasonal changes and the annual festivals of the year.

The Experiences We Gain

I rarely direct the sessions rather 'holding' the space we're in, open to whatever comes up and what issues and energies are current on the day. We are then able to be in the moment, address anything present and support each other to overcome any insecurity, embarrassment or lack of confidence. As with any human relationship we might find ourselves in conflict or needing to find different ways to relate to each other.  When this happens, the group cohesion and trust in one another can support each person, bringing a deeper investment and involvement in the session.

This continues to grow and is evidenced in the youngster's and staff's enjoyment of story making, commitment in attendance and ownership of the group and the stories we create. It is such a pleasure to witness growing confidence in each individual and the possibility to develop their skills and learning outside the parameters of what they "should or need to be doing". Having honest and creative communication gives the youngsters and their Carers a much more fruitful, productive and happy relationship.

"The story creation process parallels the preparation of the soil for planting, sowing, nurturing, harvesting, further readying and laying fallow. The willingness to tell, the ability to judge the moment and the capacity to learn from telling are crucial maturational achievements. They help us both to grow and to become more like ourselves."

Alida Gersie, Reflections on Therapeutic Storymaking

Rosie Strain

December 2011

*Intensive Interaction "is an approach to teaching the pre-speech fundamentals of communication to children and adults who have severe learning difficulties and/or autism and who are still at an early stage of communication development."


Rosie Strain Dramatherapist

Websites for Therapists by : YouCan Consulting