'The Healing Power of Story'– www.susanperrow.com – © Susan Perrow 2014


The universe began as a story … we are part human, part stories (1)

The importance of stories and storytelling has been understood and worked with since the
beginning of recorded history. Anthropologists have long observed the importance and
popularity of stories in every culture. Joseph Campbell, through his extensive study of world
mythology, states that our cultural myths

work upon us, whether consciously or unconsciously, as energy-releasing, life-motivating and
directing agents … Whenever men have looked for something solid on which to found their lives,
they have chosen not the facts in which the world abounds, but the myths of an immemorial
imagination (2)

The traditional and very important role of the storyteller was to preserve this rich mythology.
Not just a source of entertainment, the wealth of stories taught moral and history lessons to
the adults and children alike, and kept (and still keep) complex traditions alive. The
indigenous people of my own country Australia confirm the importance of stories in keeping
their culture alive and healthy.

The great spiritual and religious teachers of the world have used 'story' as a way of passing on
their spiritual truth. Zen and Sufi stories today are well loved and used for their wise and
succinct messages. When asked why he spoke to the people in parables, Jesus answered that
this was the way for the mysteries of heaven to be known (Matt: 13:10-35).

Wholistic Value of Stories

Stories have a quality or ‘power’ that can touch our ‘souls’, touch our hearts – they seem
to be able to reach us, move us, heal us, on many levels.

Many prominent psychologists today understand the story as a way of exploring the
unconscious and a tool for making us ‘whole’. In his writings on Re-visioning Psychology
Hillman stresses the importance of experiencing myths “working intrapsychically within our
fantasies, and then through them into our ideas, systems of ideas, feeling-values, moralities,
and basic styles of consciousness”(3). C.P. Estes, in her book Women who run with the
Wolves, recognises the healing power of storytelling, describing stories as ‘medicine’ (4).
Twelve-step recovery programmes, and the new discipline of journal therapy, understand and
work with the transforming, wholistic power of storytelling.

Storytelling involves three main components: the story, the storyteller and the story
listener(s). One way of studying another culture is through listening to the cultural
stories. One way of getting to know another person is by listening to their personal
stories. Storytelling is part of all of us, it connects us with each other. It is an integral
part of being human.

Imagination and Learning

Storytelling as a teaching technique works with the more expressive, imaginative 'way of
knowing' or form of intelligence. Until recently this 'other' way or form has lacked academic
support as a valid ‘intelligence’. But the last forty or more years has seen a cognitive
revolution of such major proportions that modern learning theories now incorporate anything
from two to eight intelligences or 'ways of knowing' (5).

It is beyond the scope of this article to examine any of these learning theories in detail.
However, central to a rationale for the importance of storytelling in any learning society, is
the acknowledgement of a more holistic view of the realm of human cognition, and, in
particular, imagination as a way of learning and knowing.

Einstein believed so strongly in the education of the imagination that he recommended
children be told fairy-tales, and more fairy-tales!

Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination circles the
world (6).

The Story Form as a Central Teaching Tool – the revival of old wisdom!

In his book Teaching as Storytelling Egan, a Canadian educator, claims that imagination is
the most powerful tool for learning that children bring with them to school. However, to date
there has been very little research focused on it because, according to Egan, it is so difficult
to grasp, difficult to research. He states that the dominant learning theories that have
profoundly influenced modern educators have almost entirely ignored the use of children's
imagination as a teaching and learning tool.

The Canadian Government is now backing Egan’s planning model for teaching and learning
based on principles that use and stimulate children's imagination, using the story form as a
central teaching tool. According to Egan, “the story reflects a basic and powerful form in
which we make sense of the world and experience”(7). His aim with his story-centred
curriculum is to reconstruct curricula and teaching methods in light of a richer image of the
child as an imaginative, as well as a logico-mathematical thinker (8).

Steiner Education, one of the largest independent school movements in the world today, also
acknowledges the importance of the child's imagination in learning and uses a story-based
curriculum for most subjects. Steiner described imagination as “a new beginning, a germ or
seed drawing upon the future” (in comparison to cognition, an “end product”) and urged
teachers to bring to the child as many imaginations as possible to help with continuous,
holistic growth and development (9).

It seems important to acknowledge here that both the above models, although ‘new’ to
the modern western world, are drawing on the wise and ancient art of storytelling. With
a growing knowledge of the rich history of storytelling throughout cultures worldwide,
it is now understood that the above models are not new discoveries but, hopefully,
timely revivals!


My ‘Story Doctor’ Journey

It was in the early 1970’s that I was first introduced to storytelling. I was privileged to work
in the Steiner school system where my teaching style was greatly enriched by their storycentred curriculum. I had also spent time in Africa where I had experienced traditional
cultures that wove stories into every aspect of their lives, for all ages of their community.
This encouraged me to further experiment with working with the ‘power of story’, both with
my own children and in my work as a teacher.

One of my most successful experiences as a parent was a story about a handmade doll called
‘Cloudboy’ that helped to wrestle my youngest boy (at the impressionable age of 5) out of the
clutches of the commercialised ‘Masters of the Universe” warrior dolls. I used the power of
story to fight the modern commercial ‘monster’ that encroaches relentlessly into our homes
and private lives. Cloudboy then became my son’s closest companion and was part of our
family life for many years – he even features in the family photo album. He is now in my
son’s own home, awaiting children to come and play with him.

Stories can be a very effective tool in addressing specific and general behaviour challenges in
children, and there seems to be more and more need for such tools in our complex modern
lives. I began working in a concentrated way with ‘story medicine’ in a role with the
Australian Government from 2001 to 2003, piloting Creative Parent Support Programs. This
work often involved home visits to families where I observed difficult situations and then
wrote a story (often feeling like a ‘story doctor’) to help transform the difficult behaviour.
The work then extended into running Creative Discipline Courses for parents and teachers
where the participants were encouraged to use imaginative approaches (songs, poems, stories
….) to handle discipline challenges. The home visits plus the workshops has produced some
very successful results, confirming for me, the parents and the teachers the place for
metaphor and story in child-rearing practices.

As the years have rolled by, I have become more and more interested in using ‘medicinal’
stories in my teaching. At first, when I started on my ‘Story Doctor’ journey, I experienced
the use of story in healing relatively common behaviour challenges – for example,
encouraging groups of children to use the bins and not throw litter in the school grounds
(Grandmother and the Donkey); and helping some very restless 4 year olds learn to enjoy
being sometimes still! (Little Red Pony)

Then I experimented with writing stories for specific behaviours - for example, working with
metaphor, repetition and rhyme for a 5 year old who was still soiling his pants (a story about
‘Farmer Just Right’ with his repeated slogan – ‘a place for everything and everything in its
place’); helping the smallest child in a kindergarten group feel important for being the
smallest (The Littlest Bubble); helping a child understand and cope with a recent fire at home
where he watched his own bedroom burn to the ground (Mother Rabbit and the Bushfire) ;
using metaphor and story for both a child and mother suffering from separation anxiety (Baby
Bear Koala).

Today my work is focused on collecting, collating and writing therapeutic stories, and
running workshops to encourage others to write therapeutic stories. From many positive
experiences with the power of story over the last 30 years, with both children and adults, I
passionately believe that more often than not, ‘stories know the way’! (Note that this is the
title the Chinese publisher has given to my books). I am excited with this current task in my
life …. developing the art of therapeutic (healing) storytelling for challenging behaviour and
challenging situations …. worldwide.!

Healing stories, working with imaginative journeys and the mystery and magic of metaphor,
have the potential to shift an out of balance behaviour or situation back into wholeness or
balance. Healing stories can address a range of issues – from unruly behaviour to grieving,
anxiety, lack of confidence, bullying, teasing, nightmares, intolerance, inappropriate talk,
toileting, bedwetting and much more. Healing stories also have the potential for nurturing
positive values and building emotional resilience and character.

My therapeutic work has led to the publication of two resource books:
1. ‘Healing Stories for Challenging Behaviour’
2. ‘Therapeutic Storytelling: 101 Healing Stories for Children’

Both these books have been published by Hawthorn Press in the U.K. (2008, 2012) and are
now translated into many languages, including Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese, Korean,
Spanish, Slovenian, Serbian and Croatian. (See www.susanperrow.com for book reviews and
workshop testimonials).

More recently, in 2017, Hawthorn Press has published a ‘family friendly’ version of my
stories. Entitled ‘An A-Z Collection of Behaviour Tales: From Angry Ant to Zestless Zebra’
it is a beautifully illustrated collection of 42 tales that address common childhood behaviours.
From Cranky Cockatoo to Fussy Foo Foo, Messy Mermaid to Obnoxious Octopus, Quibbling
Queen to X-tremely Dominant Xylophone, this alphabetical collection encourages the use
of story medicine as a creative strategy in parenting and teaching. Each story begins with an
undesirable or out-of-balance situation and, through the use of metaphor and an imaginative
story journey, leads to a more desirable resolution. In this way, the stories also have the
potential for nurturing positive values. Covering a range of universal behaviour, the stories
are suitable for two to ten years (and the child in every adult!). Following the alphabet from
A to Z, each behaviour is identified in the story title: anxious, bullying, cranky, demanding
… greedy … loud … reticent … uncooperative …whingeing ... and more.

Stories may not be magic pills that have powers to fix or heal all difficulties, but they can be
a wonderful, and a more pleasant, alternative to nagging and lecturing. And sometimes
‘magic’ does happen and a story does make a difference!

List of References

1. Okri, B. (1996, p.22). Birds of Heaven. London: Phoenix
2. Campbell, J. (1991, pp 4-5). The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology. New York:
3. Hillman, J. (1975, p.103). Revisioning Psychology. New York: Harper.
4. Estes, C. P. (1992). Women Who Run With The Wolves. London: Rider.
5. Blakeslee, T. (1980). The Right Brain. London: Macmillan; Bruner, J. (1986). Actual
Minds, Possible Worlds. Cambridge: Harvard University Press; Buck, R. (1984). The
Communication of Emotion. New York: Guilford.; Steiner, R. (1981). Study of Man.
London: R.S.Press; Gardner, H. (1996). Probing more deeply into the theory of Multiple
Intelligences. NASSP Bulletin, 80(583)(Nov), 1-7.
6. Viereck, G. S. (1929). What Life Means to Einstein. The Saturday Evening Post, Oct
26th, pp. 6.
7. Egan, K. (1988, p.2). Teaching as Storytelling. London: Routledge.
8. Related Websites: http://www.educ.sfu.ca/people/faculty/kegan/ ; http://www.ierg.net
9. Steiner, R. (1981, p.5). Study of Man. London: R.S.Press


'The Healing Power of Story'– www.susanperrow.com – © Susan Perrow 2014