Parents of young children know that stories play an important role in developing imagination and even encouraging youngsters to learn to read. That's why they choose appropriate library books for cozy reading sessions and make it a point to watch a special TV program now and then with their children.
While children enjoy many types of fiction, their favorites are often the stories Mom and Dad tell them, without benefit of books or TV. Spoken stories involve parents more closely with children; we establish eye contact, generate warmth and interest, and offer opportunities for questions and conversation. Small children thrive on the stimulation of the spoken word and the one-to-one attention of Mom or Dad.
Yet for many parents, telling a story is much harder than reading one. Deprived of a ready-made plot and predictable vocabulary, we tend to flounder. ''I'm not creative,'' we protest. ''How can I make up a story that they'll want to hear?''
It's easy, and here are suggestions that might help:
Relate a true event about the child or your family. Youngsters love to be told about family episodes; it makes them feel a real part of things. My daughter never tires of hearing about the night she was born (and how thrilled we were that she was a girl!) or the antics of her brothers that occurred before she joined us. Our children love the story of how we found our new house and stories about things I did when I was a little girl. Any parent has a rich, never-ending supply of anecdotes to share about family life and can begin easily enough by saying, ''I remember the time when you. . . .'' It doesn't sound like a story but it is, and children will be fascinated.
Encourage good behavior by using a favorite doll as a story hero. Sometimes we want to teach our children, but the direct approach doesn't get the message across. In these cases, use a favorite toy as a central character and build a story around it.
When one of my sons was about five, he developed a habit of wandering too far from home, making it difficult for me to keep an eye on him. Discussions didn't work, but when I began a series of silly misadventures starring Mr. Bear (his favorite stuffed animal), the scenario changed. My son listened, enthralled, to Mr. Bear's ridiculous antics and obvious poor judgment. Later I would hear him scolding the doll because Bear got lost at the supermarket or went into the wrong yard. ''I wouldn't do anything dumb like that, would I, Mom?'' my son would ask. And eventually he didn't.
Fill in the blanks. While part of any story's appeal to a young child is its predictability (be prepared to tell the same favorites over and over again), it can also be interesting to start an adventure and let your child finish it. Bring the episode to an exciting point: ''You and I were just ready to cross the street and then . . . what happened?'' This device takes a bit of practice, but children catch on quickly and enjoy it. If two or more siblings are involved, they can each add a part.
Next time, you might want to start the same story again and ask for a different ending. Or you might repeat the original but change parts - your child beginning the way you started, and you repeating her ending. These stories encourage listening skills, develop imagination, and let the child feel she has some control over the story too. Soon she'll be making up her own to share with you.
Although story hour traditionally occurs at bedtime, the beauty of verbal anecdotes is that they are so flexible. Since you needn't have a book in order to tell one, you can use any moment you choose. Once, when we were all unpacking groceries and everyone was fretful and hungry, we made up a story about a little boy who could never decide what he wanted for lunch, using the groceries as visual aids. I've also told stories while waiting for appointments or riding in the car. And because children love them so much, they become a handy tool for enlisting cooperation: ''I'll tell you a story if you sit very quietly.''
Few guidelines are necessary for spoken stories. They should be quite short, since children's attention spans are limited. The central character should be familiar (the child himself, his toy, or someone he knows) and the plot simple. The rest is up to you, your imagination - and your child's delighted encouragement.