Tell Me a Story

Posted by Eleanor K. Sommer, MS, May 02, 2017 0 comments

“Tell me a story” are familiar words from any child. Through my work with UF Health Shands Arts in Medicine, I often greeted this question with a challenging response, “Why don’t you tell me a story?” Sometimes a child would just stare at me; eyes wide or mouth just perceptibly open in confusion.

“Well, I don’t know any stories,” was a common response. “About what?” was another.

The healing power of storytelling has been well documented (e.g., Pennebaker, 1990; Stone, 2005; Gottschall, 2013). Through storytelling (written and oral), a sense of well-being is created for the teller and the listener and our worlds (internal and external) are enriched (David, 2014, 92).

My mentor in arts in medicine, Jan Swanson, created the Storytellers & Listeners project on Monday evenings on a pediatric oncology unit. When I inherited that project, I hosted storytelling in a common area accompanied by volunteers and children who could leave their rooms, IV poles in tow.

“So, who’s going to tell a story?” I would begin.

Fred Gregory, a volunteer, professor of science history at the University of Florida, and consummate storyteller, offered to start. He could enrapture a room full of children with his resonant and expressive voice. Soon noise and chatter ceased as Fred began a tall tale amid giggles and sounds of surprise.

Following Fred’s story, an eight-year-old offered a story about two alligators who got married, had four little alligators, and embarked on an adventure that included magic leaves and fish.

I often noticed the concepts of “journey” and of “magic” in stories told by children in hospitals. Not surprising, since the path to health is a journey and the medicines administered might seem to children to work like magic.

Storytelling, for the most part, is fun and uplifting, but it may have dark turns as well.

One young patient wrote a story about a stuffed monkey that accompanied her to hospital. One of the artists thought that the monkey could use a friend and retrieved one dressed as a health care worker from the children’s play room. Soon a war broke out between the two monkeys.  

While an art therapist might note more complex and astute psychological implications, those of us in the room noted the telling of a new story, which may have assisted this little girl and her family to make meaning of the situation. While the monkeys were fighting, she was absorbed in their activities and dialogue. She seemed to forget she was in a hospital and of the story. (Note that if a disturbing story emerges, an artist may find it appropriate to quietly, without disclosing confidential information, alert the unit’s social worker or child life representative.)

But most of the stories I heard were fantastical and fun, wandering in and out of reality and make-believe. One young boy created a series of “magic backpack” stories. His mother encouraged him, and the stories became elaborate adventures with tales of healing magic, whimsical animals, and exotic places—all of which emerged from his backpack. Sometimes he would stop in the middle, look around the room, and ask, “What do you think happened next?” In this way, he managed to draw us all into his story.

As artists, our mission is to encourage expression. The stories may not, on the surface, relate to what is happening in the hospital room or in a patient’s life. The stories might include symbols, similar to symbols that come to us in dreams. As artists, we must treat these stories with appreciation and care. Our task is to encourage and support, rather than to analyze and judge.

The story that a patient tells is that patient’s narrative. Storytelling teaches children to create a personal and symbolic mythology as they embark on a healthcare journey. As artists, we are witnesses to those stories, and we represent an appreciative audience, offering tools, ideas, and praise.


Davis, J. (2014). Towards a Further Understanding of What Indigenous People Have Always Known: Storytelling as the Basis of Good Pedagogy. First Nations Perspectives: The Journal of the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre Inc., 83.

Gottschall, J. (2012). The storytelling animal: How stories make us human. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Pennebaker, J. W. (1990). Opening up: The healing power of confiding in others. William Morrow.

Stone, R. (2005). The healing art of storytelling: A sacred journey of personal discovery. iUniverse

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