Storytime is a magical time with children. Kids love stories: their eyes light up when the hero wins, they hide under a blanket when they’re worried about their favorite character. But sometimes it’s not convenient or even possible to pull out a whole book. And in situations like a long car ride, being able to occupy your young and restless passenger is like a superpower. Of course, maybe you just want to shake things up and try something new.

Whatever the case, being able to come up with a story on the fly is a wonderful skill. The good news is, you don’t have to be a writer to make up your own stories. Children already have such rich imaginations. All you really need to do is give them a little push, and they’ll come up with the most amazing, memorable stories. And the best part? And the only thing you have to do is ask a few questions! Here are my essential steps for creating a story with your child.1

1. Pick a setting

“Once upon a time in…” is all you need to begin. Say those magic words, and ask your little one where your story should take place. Do they want to tell a story set in a long-ago castle? How about a rocket ship in the far future? The setting is the backdrop in which your story takes place. As long as your kid is invested, you’re good to go.

If you’re fresh out of ideas, you can also borrow from some of their favorite media. Your story could take place in a world where talking dogs in fantastical vehicles rescue people or in a forest where a princess with magical hair is locked in a tower by an evil witch.

2. Make a hero

Kids want to follow a character through an adventure. So once you have the setting, you need to put a hero front and center. Who is this amazing protagonist that we’ll be following? A giant t-rex named Bruce? Or an astronaut name Sally? Your kid will love making a hero to put into the middle of their story.

It helps to give this character a goal or mission. What do they want? Why are we following them on this adventure? Again, you can ask your child what they think this hero wants, offering suggestions if they get stuck. The talking dinosaur could want to become a pirate. Or the astronaut could be on a rescue mission. Together, craft your protagonist and give them a motivation. Now we’re ready to tell the actual story.

3. Mo heroes, mo problems

Stories are built on conflict. Nobody wants to hear about the brave knight who never had a problem and never had to face a battle. Your heroic princess needs to face a dilemma. Maybe the kingdom is being attacked by a dragon. Or maybe that rocket ship is about to run into an asteroid. Whatever it is, either come up with the initial big problem yourself, or ask your child what should go wrong for the hero.

No story would be complete without a resolution to the conflict. How does your child want their hero to get past this obstacle? Once you set up the problem, always ask, “What does [insert hero’s name] do?” Odds are, your kid will come up with an ingenious, often comical, way through it on their own. If they get stuck, though, feel free to offer suggestions. Will the astronaut use turbo boosters to steer the rocket around the asteroid, or will she blast the asteroid apart with laser beams?

4. Lather, rinse, repeat

Give the hero a new problem, then resolve the problem. That’s basically how stories work! The best stories are not “and and and,” they’re “but, so.” For example, this is boring:

“Tim went to the store and he bought bread and he went home.”

But this is riveting:

“Sally flew into space, but her rocket was heading for an asteroid. So she blasted it apart with lasers, but a space worm that was hiding in the asteroid started chasing her!”

For however much time you decide for storytime, keep setting up problems to overcome and deciding how to get past them. Things can get better or worse for the hero, but keep giving them challenges. Eventually, you and your child will land on the finale. The astronaut can make it back to Earth. The princess can finally be free from her tower for good. Wrap up the happily ever after, or leave it on a cliffhanger for the next time!

Supercharge your storytime

Even if you don’t consider yourself a creative type, this method is for you. Let your little one’s supercharged creative mind do all the heavy lifting, and marvel at how fun and insightful they can be. Just like us grown-ups, kids love feeling a sense of ownership over their favorite stories, so put them in the driver’s seat. Cooperative storytelling with your child will no doubt create deeply cherished memories for everyone involved.

  1. These ideas were inspired in part by the Amazing Tales RPG/storytelling system. You can grab a copy on their website↩︎