Once upon a springtime, Christine Patterson went to the supermarket with her daughter. They saw a little plastic windmill with hyacinths growing in it and decided to buy it.
That night, before she tucked her daughter into bed, Mrs. Patterson told her a story about an old woman who owned a mill. One day the old woman found a tiny baby. She decided to keep it. And from that day on, what do you think happened? The old woman and the tiny baby lived happily ever after.
''Essentially it was a story about my daughter and me,'' Mrs. Patterson says. ''It got to be a popular bedtime story that she asked for a lot, especially when she found that she could join in and add to it.''
Although Christine Patterson is a professional storyteller, she says the elements of that simple tale illustrate how easy it can be for parents to make up bedtime stories for their children.
''Quite often all you have to look for is a short, tiny incident,'' she explains. ''Your children will enjoy entering into the process of creating a story out of it, and it's good for them to learn that stories don't come in a solid form, that they are meant to be worked upon and played upon.''
At the New England Storytelling Center at Lesley College, director Lee Ellen Marvin echoes those sentiments. ''It's a lot easier than you might think to make up stories for children,'' she says. ''When you don't know how a story's going to end, it takes a little nerve. But the key thing is interacting with children, and I find that they're always fascinated by where you're going. Sometimes it seems as if the solutions appear almost magically.''
Storyteller Doug Lipman has yet another word of encouragement for parents. ''The good news is that they've been telling stories all their lives. Everybody uses the basic tool of storytelling - what I call a 'memorat' - every day to tell about what's happened to them.''
Although these three professional storytellers sometimes spend several months researching and learning one tale, they agree that parents have a head start because they already know what kinds of stories hold their children's interest. What most parents need, they say, are some good beginning points, like the following subjects:
* Parents' childhoods: How holidays used to be celebrated, what grandmother's kitchen smelled like, what tricks brothers and sisters played - all these are likely to fascinate children.
''You might as well start with the big favorites,'' Doug Lipman says. ''Kids love to hear stories about their parents' lives. They want to know what it was like for them when they were little.''
* Favorite stuffed animals and animal characters: Create a set of characters based on real or imagined animals.
''My brother-in-law can start a story anywhere, especially when we're out riding in the car,'' says Christine Patterson. ''It's easy because he has a family of rabbits to fall back on. They recur in every story and have the same personalities as he and his children.''
* Tailored folk and fairy tales: Take a known tale, like Little Red Riding Hood, and adapt it to a child's needs. Instead of telling the story in terms of a walk through the woods to grandmother's house, make it a stroll down the street to the house where the big black dog lives.
''If the story is told with confidence and the elements are changed to meet the child's situation, it becomes more meaningful,'' says Lee Ellen Marvin. ''More children are probably afraid of big black dogs than wolves, and they need to hear that, even though scary things happen, everything turns out all right in the end.''
Stories for children aged 2 to 3 should be short and revolve around one incident, Ms. Marvin notes. ''The little teddy bear can walk through the woods, fall into a hole, be rescued by a giraffe, and thank him - that's enough.''
Christine Patterson adds that it isn't until they're 7 or 8 that most children will want to begin to add to stories. ''Before that, they feel that Mommy and Daddy know things they don't know, and they're usually hesitant to jump in. Of course, there are some children who make up wonderful stories by themselves, who are very free with their imagination and fabricate like mad.''
For parents who may want to see how other storytellers have handled certain subjects, Doug Lipman recommends two books that are available in most public libraries: ''The Storyteller's Source Book,'' by Margaret Read MacDonald (Detroit, Gale Press), and ''World Folktales,'' by Atelia Clarkson and Gilbert Cross (New York, Charles Scribner's & Sons).