Using Books and Spaces to Inspire Stories

It was another Sunday afternoon that I gathered with a group of children at The Muse, a children’s museum and art makerspace in Knoxville, TN, to imagine stories. The children and I talked about how we can explore materials, books and exhibits to help us imagine things and stories to make. We were discovering how to think like a StoryMaker!


Setting the stage for imagining stories

I read the book The Paper Dolls by Julia Donaldson. We lingered on the page where the girl’s paper dolls were introduced. “There were Ticky and Tacky and Jackie the Backie…” The children all laughed when they saw “Jim with two noses”. They discussed what they were wearing and one of the children even said, “I can make my character with blue hair too!” I could tell that their imaginations were engaged and they were already beginning to picture what their character could look like in their minds.

Children making their own characters after being inspired by this book


I continued with the story and summarized the adventures that the girl had with her paper dolls by reading the pictures with the children. They became fascinated when they saw a comparison of the girl playing with her tiger slipper on one page and on the next page how that object transformed into a real tiger chasing after the paper dolls. They saw a strong example of when they play with materials and toys how a real story can be made in their imaginations. They were inspired! They were ready to make!

The variety of loose parts and materials children can choose from in the makerspace.

A simple new material to place in the makerspace to invite children to imagine.

Everyone moved to the art makerspace where they found only one new material in the space. Foam shaped people. I asked them to close their eyes and imagine what their character looked like. Then I gave a few choices for making possibilities. “You can use these foam people, you can make paper dolls like the girl in our book, or make anything you imagine with the materials in this space.”, I explained. Sometimes you need to model a skill to help them become a better maker such as tracing shapes, cutting, using a glue gun, or other tools. In this case, when some children expressed interested in making paper dolls, I modeled how to fold paper, trace a doll shape and cut to make the connected shapes. It is very important in StoryMaking that they do not see the focus lesson as a craft activity. We want the materials and modeled lessons to serve as an invitation only and allow children to use the open-ended materials to make what they envision in their mind.

One child selects a foam shaped person, another begins making with construction paper, while the youngest boy finds a picture of a robot to color. All imagining their characters in their own way.

Our StoryMaking Cycle starts with igniting a child’s imagination (Imagine). Each time I begin the StoryMaking journey with children my purpose is to set the stage for the engagement of their imaginations. This is when I plan possibilities for uses of materials, designs for spaces, and lessons that invite wonder and imagination. Children’s imaginations are usually first activated by our own inspirations which can take place through focus lessons, provocations, new materials, beautiful spaces, mentor texts and more.


After children made their characters, I offered another invitation. “What adventures can you imagine playing and making with your character?” We viewed pictures of the different exhibits offered at The Muse, such as the magnet ramp wall and flight lab from Kodo Kids. The water table in their Backyard space was supplied with boats and other materials for water play. I even suggested playing with the Bee-Bot robots offered at Tech Time this month for adding actions in their stories. Once again, they were offered many choices and could choose their own adventure in any exhibit they wanted. The purpose was to go off and explore, to play and to hopefully make a story. And boy did they create stories!

Anchor chart posted in the makerspace to invite children to imagine, play and make stories.

Lucas, a two-year-old boy, had made a character from a robot picture he had seen in the makerspace. He colored and then taped a bottle cap to his picture to represent a knob that would beep. As Lucas played with the magnet ramp wall from Kodo Kids. I narrated his play so he could hear storytelling language. I paused at times and asked him, “What just happened?” which would allow him to give the next detail to his story. In this picture, after his robot character slid down the slide (he filled in the slide detail), he began dropping balls on the robot’s head. “Smash, smash, smash”, he giggled. “What happened?” I asked. “He smashed his head.”, he added as he continued to play and make his story.


Teacher tip – With very young children, narrate what you see them doing as they play. Pause and ask questions so that they can contribute words, small phrases or even sound effects to make their story.

Isaac, another two-year-old boy, selected blocks to play with his parents. “Issac, what are you making?,” I asked. He told me that he made his house. I asked him what he was doing in his house and he explained that he runs around. “Can you show me what that looks like?” I suggested. He then took his character and acted out running around. I celebrated and told him that he had just made a story! I told him that I would tell him the story I saw and he could tell me if I got anything wrong. After the story was shared, I asked him if he wanted to change any part of his story. He took his character and said, “I laid down.” Isaac understood he could make a story and was now adding his own details!

Isaac continues playing and making his story by showing how he lays down for a nap in his house.


When I went to visit Mary, age 7, playing in the exhibits she had decided to take her character to the flight lab. I observed her launching her character up into the wind tunnel and laughing as she came floating down to the ground. She then picked up a scarf in the exhibit, wrapped her character up and launched her again. Careful not to interrupt her play, I waited and then asked, “Have you imagined a story to make with your character?” Having more knowledge of how a story can go, Mary began her story with “Once upon a time” and then shared her story.

“Once upon a time, there was a girl named Amelia. She was flying and she flew into outer space. But she came crashing down and fell on her face. So she needed to make a spaceship. This time she flew into outer space.”

Mary said that she needed to go to a few other places in the museum to try out her story. She asked me to take a picture of each idea and then she could select one that she wanted to write.

Mary plays with the Flight Lab from Kodo Kids to make her story.


While I was listening to Mary share her story, Henry, age 9, came running over to me to tell me he had made a story in the U.S.S. Muse Spaceship Exhibit. He was ready to share and invited me to come into the exhibit to watch him play, make and share his story with an audience.

One day, Darwin and his crew were going to the planet Xeno Land. Darwin yelled, “Why are you always late?” to Amelia (his sister’s character that she made). “Let’s just get on with the mission!,” Amelia yelled. Amelia got into her seat and put on her seat belt. Darwin hit the button with his shovel that launched them into space. Then there were some astroids so Darwin hit the warp drive button. He yelled, “Prepare for the hyper crane. “ Then he hit a button and they arrived back home.

Henry playing and making his story with his character in the spaceship exhibit.


Finally, I observed Kai, 2 years old, and his Dad exploring the Bee-Bot robots. Earlier in the makerspace Kai’s Dad was modeling ways to make a character with the group. Kai added a hat and told me that (his character) “had a hat like his Daddy.” He wasn’t really interested in playing with his character or even making one of his own. And that is completely ok and happens often! Like I said, StoryMaking is not an activity to finish. It’s about finding the right inspiration to help children imagine stories. Kai found his “character” in the Bee-Bot. It was already created for him and all he had to do was explore, play and have fun! As he explored with programming the robot to move in different directions he noticed that if he pushed the button too many times it would fall off the table. I began to play and catch the robot as he tried to make it fall. He was beginning to play and make a story and shouting out, “He is falling! He is falling!” The beginning details of his story.

Kai explores the Bee-Bot robots to imagine a story


Selecting creative books, open-ended materials and playing in inspiring spaces are just some ways you can invite children to imagine stories. If you would like to inspire your children with a new purpose to their play and support them in imagining stories as they play, here are a few tips when using books to help you on your way.


Tips for Inspiring Stories with Books

When using a book to help children imagine stories, the goal is not to finish the story. You may use images, part of the story or even summarize what is happening to make your invitation and example clear to the children. If you continue to use this book for writer’s craft focus lessons, such as how to add details, begin a story, add dialogue, etc. It will be important that your children already know the story as a reader first. This means that they have heard it a few times before and know the plot well. Then they won’t be thinking about what is happening next in the story and will be able to focus on the detail in the writing that you want them to notice.

  • Select a book that shows a character making something with materials to inspire their own making
  • Read parts or highlight pictures to provoke discussion on what they could make.
  • Invite children into the read aloud with you by pausing at pictures and asking them to describe the characters, what was made in the book, or even add dialogue of what they characters would say to make the read aloud more interactive.
  • After the read aloud, allow children to close their eyes to visualize what they would make, create a quick sketch of what they imagine or write a few words on a sticky note to help them plan before they play and make.
  • Provide a new material to spark interest along with other options that are similar to the materials represented in the book. For example, if the character in the book was making sculptures you might want to provide clay, play-doh, foil, etc.

Happy StoryMaking!