Make it up as you go along

I’ve been making up bed-time stories for my kids.Could imagination and improvisation prepare them (and me) for the modern world?

Stef Lewandowski
11 min readJun 17, 2013


I’ve been making up stories with my kids at bedtime recently. It’s a tiny thing that I think could have a big impact, like teaching your kids to code, and I want to share some of the things I’ve learnt, and what I hope it will do for them, and for me.

The term agile has become something of a way of life for most of us working in the web, tech and startup worlds. We’ve read the books, gone on the courses and we do most of our planning based around stories about how we guess people who use the things we make will behave.

These stories are necessary because it’s often hard to see very far into the future and things change rapidly. As an industry, we’ve responded by developing ways of working that allow us to figure things out along the way and adapt over time. That might mean making iterative changes to something you’re working on and measuring behaviour based on comparing two version of the same system, or at the other extreme, people who are running startup companies completely changing what they’re doing and pivoting towards a new direction.

In some ways it’s intensely liberating – no more huge specification documents and expensive wastes-of-time before you find out if you’ve got the proposition right. In other ways it can be scary – what happens if you’re barking up the wrong tree and wasting your investors’ money?

If software is eating the World
then I want my kids to have
the skills to make software

We’re just making software up as we go along

This make it up as you go along methodology to software development has come a long way and there’s now a great deal of thinking published around it. We have mainstream support for the idea that Agile (with a capital A, of course) is the best way to build many types of software, apps, websites, webapps and other web-things (such as the one I am writing this on).

We’re regularly told that modern technology, and software in particular, will inevitably be used to change every facet of human endeavour. I’ve attended conference after conference with speakers instigating wide-eyed amazement in an audience by talking about how the entire musical output of the species, for instance, will eventually fit onto a pin-head-sized device, and how freely available open technology will be used to spread equality and empowerment around the world.

Yet we live with the day-to-day resignation that this technology will still ultimately only be used to consume the output of bands like One Direction and Justin Beiber, and that while the technology might be available, the skills to deploy it will remain in the hands of the few. I tend to agree, software probably is eating the World.

We’re just making parenting up as we go along

If you’re a parent you’ll be familiar with the urge to consider what you’re doing for your kids to prepare them for what’s coming next – the behaviours you present to your kids,the things you do together, the area you choose to live in, the school that you manage to get your kids into, the activities you encourage, and the way of life you have. There’s never enough information, everything is always changing, so we make pragmatic decisions – it’s the only way to handle the weight that each of these tiny decisions might have in future.

The only sane way forward is to make the parenting thing up as we go along, and adapt to each situation. How I can bring up my children so that they are well prepared to live and work in a world that might need different skills than the ones that the education system values?

An education for making things up

“No daddy, I’m going to tell you a story

Ken Robinson gave an amazing talk at TED, and I realise there’s a high probability you’ve seen it. If not, please, it’s one of the best. It’s about creativity in schools and it changed the way I think about education, particularly his thoughts on collaboration.

At school it’s often considered to be cheating – education to some people is all about the individual and how they respond in an exam scenario, not about looking at how people interact collaboratively.

Yet if you look at the world of work, and the way that, in particular, we software/tech/startup people operate, constant collaboration is a key feature. Companies like Github, Basecamp and indeed Medium are changing the way that we work by enabling collaboration in new and interesting ways. Multiple people authoring and discussing a shared concern, often when not in the same room at the same time.

If you were to imagine an educational policy to support this shift in how we work, and to encourage the entrepreneurs that are so crucial in growing an economy, and then think of the exact opposite, that’s sadly what seems to be happening in the UK, however.

Rote learning, fact-over-practice, the attempted removal of creative subjects from the core curriculum and a return to the halcyon days of the 1950s seem to be elements of a general theme. I feel pretty baffled that a government that is so keen on London’s Tech City, that talks so positively about digital technology and entrepreneurship would choose to move in this direction. It feels like they’re trying to move the teaching profession to educate kids for the wrong century.

If the agile, collaborative, open approach is the right way to make the software/web/tech things we make, are we teaching kids the right kinds of skills that will suit a world that will expect them to adapt so rapidly, to work so collaboratively and to be able to think so freely?

Because if, as they say, software really is eating the World, then I want to make sure that my kids know how to operate in it. And so I’ll try a few unusual, unexpected things around the sides of the education system to encourage them.

At this point you’re probably expecting me to talk about how I’m teaching my kids to code. Of course I will be, and there has been a lot said on the subject. I very much admire the work that Code Club and Young Rewired State are doing to encourage that to happen. I thought I’d talk about a different angle I’ve been taking, however.

Making up stories at bed-time

What’s Rainbow World? Read on to find out…

When I get back from the studio in time, I read my two eldest kids stories at bed-time. We seem to have acquired a huge array of books that we’ve acquired over the years – gifts, charity shop finds and a few of our own purchases. I love books, and I love children’s books for their simplicity and craft.

One night, as an experiment, I thought I’d try something a little different. A made-up story. I left the books on the shelf and decided to make something up myself. I’d not really heard of anyone I know attempting it, and I’ve certainly not had any training in spontaneously making up stories!

I started with the classic “Once upon a time…” and went from there. I asked the kids to suggest things along the way by pausing mid-sentence. It turned into a little game where they suggested things, often complete nonsense (!), and it was my job to incorporate their suggestions into something that made some rough kind of sense. They loved it and we’d often do two or three of these stories before calling it a night.

My first followed this kind of structure, and would last about five minutes:

Once upon a time there was a _______ who lived in a _______. Every day she/he _______ and everyone was happy. One day _______ happened, so _______. Our hero had to _______ and as a result _______ . Everyone was happy again. Yay she/he!

It was fun, collaborative, imaginative, and the strangest part was that I had no idea I could do it. To sit there, and start a story, with the wide-eyed kids listening to my every word, and attempt, whilst thinking it up and speaking at the same time, to develop a story and bring it back to some kind of sensible conclusion? Not something I’d considered I would have been able to do! Here are a few things I’ve learnt about it, and if you’re a parent, perhaps you could try one or two.

Some of the ideas that we make up stories about

Mix and match the “real books” and the “made up stories”

We now read a book, followed by a made up story, or perhaps have three different, very short made up stories. It’s a good way to start. After the book, ask “now, why don’t we make up a story of our own?”

Let the kids suggest the title and then do the rest

They come back with some stuff that I just couldn’t imagine. Kids have a crazy imagination, but you’ll be able to give a little narrative structure that they might not manage.

Leave some blanks

Just as Ian Livingstone did with his Choose Your Own Adventure books, give the kids some decision points so it’s their story to make. Does the boy blow a raspberry at the dragon, or does he tell it “you’re being naughty!”?

Try to look at things from the kids’ point of view

Sometimes I look around me for inspiration and make something up about a sideways look at the familiar things. The Central Heating Dragon who lives in the boiler and keeps the house warm. What the Neighbourhood Foxes really get up to when we’re asleep.

Be funny and silly

The best stories have very silly, surprising things happening in them. My kids love it when I go off on a silly tangent.

Memorable names are fun

We often talk about the characters that have appeared in the stories during the day and many weeks after I told the story. The names of the stories and the characters are often just as important as the stories themselves.

You don’t have to have a conclusion

Sometimes a story can come to an end without a resolution. If you’re running out of steam, end with a “to be continued…” or just leave it open ended so they can think about it.

Have a theme tune

The kids know when I’m doing a made up story because I’ll hum or whistle a tune at the beginning and end of the story so they know it’s made up story time.

Yes, and…

I often talk about “yes, and” as a powerful way of having a conversation, and it’s important when you’re being thrown suggestions by the kids to say yes to everything, and see where the story goes.

Learn from the masters

The Pixar guys have 22 rules of story-telling, and they’re worth a read. No, it’s not one of those dodgy “lists of things” blog posts.

Record them!

I started turning on my iPhone while I was telling last night’s story. Here’s “Rainbow World” thanks to a request from my daughter.

Start a mini epic

The most popular thing I’ve done for the kids so far, though was actually a much longer-form way of telling a story. In episodes.

My team-mate NTLK gave us a badge printed with her amazing space cat Twitter avatar, and of course that turned into a story. And then another. And then another. We’re now on episode eleven, each one about ten minutes long!

What started as a little joke has now grown into a mini epic and shows no signs of coming to an end any time soon. It’s Natalka the Galactic Space Cat, captain and hero of the Space Dog wars, yet betrayed on her return to her home planet and banished to the other side of the galaxy via a Space Zapper. How will she get home? How will she expose the conspiracy?

It’s fascinating that a four- and six-year-old have the patience, but they always get excited and very focussed on the story as I tell it.

I recorded one of the episodes on my phone and you can listen to it on Soundcloud.

Make a Story Jar

We’re trying something new this week, and we’ve written short story titles down on the back of pieces of paper and store them up high in the bedroom in a glass jar.

We turned the making of the Story Jar into an event itself – lots of paper cutting, thinking of silly ideas for stories, and it helped with their writing too. “How do you spell monster?”

Emily and I documented how we did it so you can try this one yourself. It’s lots of fun. Have a read of her how-to.

Don’t put away childish things

If you’ve read my Create Something Every Day post you’ll know that I try to make sure that I make something new, well, every day. Our collaboratively-narrated story has become one of those things: We’re making something together every day.

It turns out that making up stories just takes a bit of practice, and since starting it’s become something of a rhythm. And that “together” is important – I’ve learned that by giving myself a little room to be silly, playful and light-hearted is really helpful. Andy Gibson talks about the concept of the 5 a day for the mind. And making up stories is up there as one of mine.

When I was a child,
I spoke as a child,
I understood as a child,
I thought as a child:
but when I became a man,
I put away childish things.

This old bible quote often gets mentioned as a supporting argument for how as we grow up we must become more serious, and I can’t think of another quote that is so obviously wrong! I’ve found that by being lighthearted with the kids, and doing something quite childish unstuck me and helped me exercise a part of my brain I didn’t really know I had.Who knew I could improvise a story? Not me!

Through this process, and by being me, I hope to instil in the kids the idea that work isn’t all serious, and that play is a part of life no matter your age. I live by a “hack, play, learn” ethos and if there’s one thing other than “teach your kids to code” that I would say to a parent, it would be “teach your kids to invent”.

I hope this post has inspired you to try the same. If so, leave a comment and let me know how you get on.

Thanks to those who voted on Help Me Write. What shall I write next?