The Importance of Storytelling
Last week, students from Year 1 to Year 8 at Yew Chung International School of Beijing were paid a visit by British actor, drama therapist and professional storyteller Ursula Holden-Gill. Ursula captivated the imaginations of our students, telling them British fairy tales and folk stories, and acting them out with brilliant voices, gestures and with the help of some audience interaction. We speak to Ursula about her first visit to Beijing and the importance of storytelling for children.
Please introduce yourself.
Before becoming a professional actor, I studied Music and Drama at St Martin’s College, and completed an MA in Intercultural Storytelling at the University of Lancaster. I earned a Postgraduate Diploma in Acting from the Drama Studio London. In the late 1990s I started to forge my career in acting, appearing in particular in the British TV soap drama “Emmerdale” as Alice Dingle, and as Carol the school secretary in the Channel 4 series “Teachers”. I loved the acting but I also had a strong commitment to using drama for good – as therapy and an outlet for vulnerable young people. I started to do work for the British social services, adoption services, the charity Action for Children, and others. This has always been a brilliantly rewarding part of my career.
In 2007, I completed teacher training and started to establish myself as a professional storyteller and writer. I would perform my stories at gigs and events around the country, but I also used them to work with excluded teenagers and other vulnerable children as a means of exploring their own lives. Then, in 2014, I joined the travelling storytelling company “Dream On Productions”, which is what brings me to Beijing.
What is the aim of “Dream On Productions”?
They’re an Argentina-based company that tour British and American storytellers around the world with a view to developing English language skills in EAL students, as well as introducing them to native, regional accents and our folk heritage. The stories we tell are based on traditional English fairy tales such as “Jack and the Beanstalk”, and as we tell them we try to evoke the characteristics, sights and sounds of English life and landscapes.
What do you enjoy about telling stories to children?
Stories have the ability to cut through culture. It’s a universal language, and you can add performance to reinforce meaning when language might be a barrier. Even if you can’t understand every word, you can still access the story, follow a narrative and join in in the actions and performance.
I love how the children are engaged and delighted by my dancing, singing and instrument-playing too. And it is always a pleasure to see those less confident students shine and come out of their shell when they’re engaging with a story.
What is the importance of telling stories to children?
I have worked with many children now, and I can instantly tell when a young child has been read to. Their listening, imaginative and creative skills are significantly more developed and they are able to engage with stories in a completely different way. This goes on to help them enormously in school. The importance of reading or telling stories to children can’t be underestimated.
I think that technology offers many exciting opportunities to us, but I very strongly feel that the human element of storytelling needs to be maintained. It is not just about putting on a tape for your child to listen to. It is about stopping to ask them questions about the story, and asking them to imagine extra details.
How can parents encourage their children to love reading?
Reading should never be a chore or a punishment. Create an environment at home where you share stories every day. This might be bedtime reading, or it might be imagining stories on the way to school.
When you do read a book to your child, create a safe and focused storytelling environment away from distractions. And don’t be afraid to stray from the book. Use the time to open up their imagination by asking them questions about the story and its characters. These things bring stories to life.