Meet Martha Cooney, Founder and Director of StoryUP! StoryUP! aims to entertain, educate, and empower young children and their families through the interactive art of telling, acting and writing stories. StoryUP brings interactive improv, storytelling, and themed StoryPlays to literacy workshops for young children and adds drama to children’s parties and events.
Martha studied educational theater in graduate school and centered her research on children’s storytelling. She teaches preschool in the Philadelphia area and has taught with Philadelphia Young Playwrights, Theatre Horizon, ArtsTech children’s creative theater, Mighty Writers, and Musehouse: A Center for the Literary Arts. You can also catch Martha performing with the Philly Improv Theater house team Hot Dish and as a Guest Storyteller with Best of Philly’s First Person Arts Story Slams. Martha offers some insight on the the magic that unfolds when children find empowerment as storytellers:
“I’ve always loved making up stories, but working as a preschool teacher took storytelling in a new direction. Telling stories during transition times was something that held the kids’ attention, and all preschool teachers know how valuable that is! When I was teaching PreK, we started a midnight snack tradition of turning off the lights during afternoon snack and I would start telling a story. If I didn’t start a story, they would ask for it and remind me: “Martha, midnight snack?” This developed into a regular storytelling session at circle time every afternoon, and we built routines and activities that got the kids telling their own stories.”
“I find a lot of the old classic children’s stories not only have vivid dramatic imagination, but they have a lot of comedy in them, and some beautiful writing. One of Grimm’s fairy tales opens with ‘In the old days, when wishing still helped…’ I love that. Lewis Carroll is my absolute favorite though: the imagination running riot — which is how kids think, play and live.”
What can we learn from the child as storyteller?
“So many things! First, the uninhibited nature of the child is very inspiring. The child is enjoying herself, having fun and not yet worried about her inner censor. It’s true creativity because it just flows, which becomes increasingly difficult for adult artists who face the challenge of the ego and other pressures when they are trying to write or create. Children engage in storytelling as fun and play, which it should be in its purest form.”
“Children as storytellers also reveals their own interests, concerns, whatever is on their mind or might be scaring or fascinating them at that moment. I remember one 4-year- old student telling a story about how he didn’t want to clean his room and arguing with his dad about it. I don’t think that this had even actually happened, but it was an interesting insight into something that might be on that child’s mind. At the same time, wildly inventive stories about black holes and outer space give you a peek into the mix of what’s in their mind – bits of learning mixed with imagination about whatever fascinates them. In any classroom, everyone gets to know each other’s styles and interests. The kids know what matters to each other, and they know that Noah likes to tell stories about robots or Jasmine likes to tell stories about unicorns. And then when they’re assigning play roles for their stories, they might give Noah the robot because they know he prefers it, which makes Noah feel valued. Appreciating each other’s creativity when given the space to share it builds community in the classroom and affirms the value of everyone’s contribution. So storytelling connects people to each other, even, and maybe especially, at a very young age. It can be pretty powerful.”
Children’s perceptions of gender in dramatic play:
“My master’s research focused specifically on the storytelling and dramatic play of boys, and gender issues are always a big topic among early childhood teachers. Despite efforts that may be made by adults around them, children still often have specific perceptions of gender (i.e., only girls can play this role, only boys can only play that role), so dramatic play activities are great for having conversations with the children around these issues. I find that if you introduce children to the norm or rule that anybody can play any role, and repeat that norm often and help support them when they have conflicts over it, they will eventually take ownership of that and take on the idea themselves. I still see patterns in what roles boys tend to choose or what roles girls tend to choose, but by establishing parameters that any choice you make is acceptable, the children do feel more freedom to experiment a bit. Dramatic play activities can also be really effective for exploring any issue you want to make a point about with the children. Taking different versions of traditional stories and changing gender roles around, or using dramatic play to role-play real-life issues around gender tend to capture the kids’ interest and get them talking.”
StoryUP! is going to partner with the Philly Improv Theater for an upcoming run of interactive, participatory shows for kids and families at the Shubin Theater. StoryUP! is also available for booking interactive shows for kids, birthday party activities, storytelling, and workshops.
Northwest Philly Parents is a partnership between Newsworks and Germantown Avenue Parents.