One of the most excellent ways to create a storytelling culture in the home is to act out stories together. Though I have explored this idea somewhat in my book on Tolkien and Lewis (Talking of Dragons), I’m no more an expert on this than anyone else, so it’s just a matter of trial and error with our family. We have several ways we have tried this with our own small children (ages 5 and 2). One of our household favourites is called ‘Treasure Hunt.’ This is a wonderful way to teach very young children about such virtues as courage, watchfulness, and loyalty.
It’s actually very simple, and can be played indoors or out. You can elaborate over time, especially as the children get a little older. The simpler, indoor version (great for rainy or snowy days) goes like this:
1. Draw a simple treasure map, based on the topography of your living room/hallway/bedroom/playroom, or similar. Name the various bits of furniture: our large recliner is The Green Mountain. We have a small, flower-shaped rug that has been dubbed The Western Gardens. Couches can be called The Red Mountains, or the Rocky Hills. Names can be as simple or as elaborate as you like: Tolkien, for all his Elvish unpronounceables, gave most of the place names in The Hobbit simple, descriptive names: The Misty Mountains, The Long Lake, The River Running, The Lonely Mountain. Name each locale on your map, and, Indiana Jones notwithstanding, X always marks the spot.
2. Get the ‘treasure’. If you can find a small toy treasure chest, great, but any box will do. Fill it with some kind of treat or goodies: we have used candy, raisins, nuts, etc. Bury it: under some pillows, under a couch, in a closet, under some blankets, or wherever your imagination carries you.
3. Plan for various adventures along the way. Hide five or six stuffed ‘mountain lions’ (or wolves, or dragons, or anything appropriate) that you can quickly grab along some mountain pass for a surprise attack. If you have a small, decorative suit of armour, this makes an excellent ‘evil knight’ for your young son to cross swords with. A white blanket can be used to simulate a snowstorm. Come up with ideas as a family.
4. Next, you’ll need one or two small children (or four, or six, as the case may be): outfit them with a variety of ‘travelling gear’: toy swords are a must for the boys; or toy riding horses (the ones with a horse head on a stick are perfect) for either girls or boys. Take along a few cups and plates for campfire meals. Roll up the gear in a blanket (except for swords, which should be placed in belts, ready for action).
5. Set out, but always begin and end each adventure with prayer. Have the children ride through the halls on their toy horses, or even march in place, for a minute or two. Point out the ‘sights’ of the countryside: hills and rivers, lakes and waterfalls, mountains and oceans. Help the children to begin to use their imaginations to see the wonders of the world, right in their own living room.
6. At the appropriate time, have the lions, or dragons, or evil knight, attack the little party. The boys should be taught to protect their sisters, and the sisters must not engage directly in the battle (they may be taught to pour arrows into the ranks of the enemies from a safe distance). Make sure anyone who fights with swords cleans their blade afterwards, as Aslan taught us. Another idea is to have a ‘Gate Guardian’: an old man, or a mysterious knight (the suit of armour, or another toy figure), who will not let the company pass until they have solved a riddle. Make up a simple riddle beforehand: the answer could be ‘grass’ or ‘stars’ or ‘trees’. Example: ‘I am the little light that shines at night; though I am far away, I bring light to the whole world’. Something simple that even young children will be able to figure out. Increase the complexity of the riddles as they get more adept at solving them. In general, try to have something important for each child to do on each Treasure Hunt: if little brother’s calling is to slay the dragon, big sister can solve the riddle.
7. Let the adventure last several ‘days’. After marching for a while, set up camp: have a pretend meal (don’t forget to feed the horses), and then go to bed. Everyone should sleep for a short time (thirty seconds to a minute, depending on the ages and attention spans of the children). Sometimes, you may want to have a surprise night attack: otherwise, sound the ‘Morning Horn’ (if you have a toy horn, use that, or just make a shofar-like sound). That is the signal for the day to begin. Have a march of several days, and plan a few adventures along the way.
8. When you reach the X, have everyone dig (toy shovels are great for this purpose). Let the digging last for a while (patience is one of the virtues). When the treasure is found, there should be appropriate rejoicing and thanksgiving: prayer, dancing, laughing, singing. Then, distribute the goods (the candy, raisins, or whatever).
9. You can also work a storyline into your Treasure Hunt: part of the mission could be rescuing a noble knight or princess from the dungeon of a wicked sorcerer. Use whatever toys you have around to set the scene.
10. Use every opportunity to teach Christian virtue and honour. Teach the children to look out for one another, to help out when someone is in trouble (a large floor rug has become our Red Marshes, and whenever someone falls in, the others have to help him out). Teach them to love the beauty of the ‘sights’ all around on the journey. Let the imagination see and hear birds, and splash in cold streams. This game can also be played, on a larger scale, in the yard, but even if you are starting small indoors, show your children what it is like to delight in God’s creation, and to sacrifice for one another in life’s great Treasure Hunt.