Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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August 3, 2021

Universal Story Themes – Take It From The Kids

by Ellen Buikema

I was privileged to work in a co-operative preschool for six years that allowed for teacher autonomy. (Bless them.) This was the stage of my career where I learned the “And then what happened?” method of storytelling. These kids were phenomenal writing teachers!

Let me explain...

My classroom consisted of several centers of activity that allowed for maximum creativity, keeping in mind that everyone learns in a different manner. At the Pre-K stage many were full-body learners who really threw themselves into their play, sometimes literally.

Typical centers in this type of classroom are: math, science, art, fine motor, gross motor, housekeeping (which in this school changed themes monthly and was a real eye-opener), reading, and writing.

Often the writing centers consisted of a table with a variety of paper types as well as writing implements. I changed this up a bit to include story writing to be acted in play form at the end of the students’ day.

At a separate desk lay a numbered piece of paper with lines drawn for the students to print their names to the best of their ability. Students were encouraged to ask for help from an adult or other student. A few had good fine motor skills by age five.

After several spots were taken, either my assistant or I sat with the students and wrote either like the wind, trying to keep up with their thoughts or sentence by painful sentence as the children decided what they wanted to say. This is where I began the “And then what happened?” system of drawing a story to its conclusion.

The students needed to identify the characters in their stories, give them names, and find classmates who were willing to act in their plays. If a classmate declined there was to be no pouting, just go on to another friend. The teachers were sometimes asked to act. I have played multiple roles over the years. The oddest of which was playing a dog in a vet’s office. I died in that role.

I still use the method of “And then what happened?” to this day. It proved invaluable during National Novel Writing Month.

 5 Recurring topics in children's writing

Over the years I've seen several common themes in the stories that children have dictated.

The hero

The author of the story is the main protagonist who tends to save either friends, pets, or both. Stories with animals are common, and pets were very important to the young children I’ve worked with. The antagonist in the stories composed by four and five-year-old children is most often a natural phenomenon like hurricanes, tornadoes, or volcanoes. The next likely antagonist is a dangerous animal, either living or extinct. Dinosaurs are awesome antagonists.

Television characters

Whatever cartoons are popular at the time are often used in dictated stories. The children take the same roles as the cartoon characters down to the exact personalities and actions—a good reason to monitor the TV.

At the time my students acted out stories with the characters from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I only paid peripheral attention to the program until I wrote out the stories. The names of all the turtles are fine, Italian artists. Figuring out how to make the turtle’s sewer in the scene was tricky. The authors eventually opted to use an invisible sewer.

Acting out fears

The main themes displayed for fear were bullying and loss.  A friend moving away was how loss was most frequently expressed. As moving is common and stressful, it makes sense that children would choose this theme to help work through what may be happening to them. In these stories the child moving offered to return and to have their friends come to visit.

Bullying was difficult to cast as no one wanted to be the “bad guy.” So, the bully was often an invisible foe that the characters could see. Interestingly, the teachers were never asked to be the bully.


Vacation stories were rarely family vacations. Generally, vacations were taken with friends and favorite stuffed animals substituting as pets. Favorite settings were the beach, Disneyland, Disneyworld, and Legoland.

Not a lot of drama in these stories. Mostly action and short on dialogue.

A day in the life

Doctor and dentist office visits were common themes although these were not always human-on-human. Sometimes animal patients visited animal doctors and dentists and checkups were happy ones. The classroom had a play doctor’s bag and a real stethoscope. Temperature, blood pressure checking and heart monitoring were great fun and would happen spontaneously during the school day, not only during scenes.

Other scenes took place in airports, veterinarian’s office, restaurants, and home.

The only gender stereotyping was for parents. Boys chose to be dads and girls chose to be moms. At one time or another, everyone was a ninja turtle.

Everything you can think of that happens at home eventually finds its way into the classroom.

Check out this link for more information about Creative Drama and Young Children: The Dramatic Learning Connection.

Another form of communication I've tried is through drawing. When children have been unable or unwilling to express their feelings, I've asked them to draw a picture. Later, they would tell me more about it.

Once a child in my Resource Specialist Program (RSP) classroom was having an unusually difficult day. I asked him to stop his math lesson, which was going nowhere for him, and draw what he was feeling. After I saw that picture, I totally understood why he was sullen. The illustration showed a large head with a corona of fire spewing forth. Poor guy had a horrible headache.

This relates directly to writer-illustrators. A picture really can express the equivalent of a few paragraphs of prose. 

Think back to your childhood. What type of stories and plays did you create? Do you have other themes to add to the list? Please share them with us down in the comments!

* * * * * *

About Ellen

Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents, Parenting: A Work in Progress, and The Adventures of Charlie Chameleon, a series of chapter books for children with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Works In Progress are, The Hobo Code, YA historical fiction and Crystal Memories, YA fantasy.

Find her at http://ellenbuikema.com or on Amazon.

Top Image by free stock photos from www.picjumbo.com from Pixabay

9 comments on “Universal Story Themes – Take It From The Kids”

  1. I remember my kids doing this, especially my oldest. He loved my dad's red truck, so his stories seemed to circle around the truck and country music.


    1. Denise that is adorable and makes a lot of sense. Did you keep any of your children's stories?

      Our youngest made a miniature book titled Pru the Very Spoiled Cow that went along with her Beanie Baby cow. She pierced the cow's ears. LOL.

      She discovered it many years later. It was a lovely trip down memory lane.

  2. This is so timely, Ellen, as I'm puzzling over the universal themes in my memoir. I know they're different for adults than for kids, but it's fun to see what kids think. Coincidentally, I just drafted an essay that includes a mention of my playacting as a kid. When we played "house," I always wanted to be the "kitty cat," so much so that my dad nicknamed my "Karen Kitten, LOL." I think playing a cat was an early expression of my introvert and conflict-avoidance leanings. Leave the relationship interactions to others; I'll just happily purr around everyone ankles!

    1. There are more than a few psychologists that believe the act of play is a child's work.

      I think that children work out a lot of issues while expressing themselves in play, just as writers do in the creation of stories -- writer's play.

      I'm glad the post is timely!

      Purring is good.

    1. I have no idea where that phrase came from. It sort of spilled out.

      When stated with enthusiasm, the kiddos excitedly carried on with their stories. It was remarkable.

      I wonder how many writers use the "And then what happened?" antidote to writer's block?

    1. Hi Sudha!
      I'm so glad you can use the phrase. It works for me every time. Well, that and occasionally stopping to play a game of solitaire to completely blank out any anxiety over lack of story line. That helps too!

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