For bookshops


  • The story
  • The context
  • The experience
  • Inclusion and diversity
  • Cocreating the narrative
  • Structure and examples of content
  • Closer collaboration between a theatre company and local children’s bookshops
  • Research behind the project
  • Fully tested and piloted with school children
  • Collaborators involved in the project

The story:

Deep into Earth’s next ice age, stories have become the fuel for life. Now this precious resource is disappearing. Someone is stealing the town´s stories. Deprived of their fuel the town’s fablehearths will go out, the ice will creep back in and families will perish in their beds. In a last desperate roll of the dice the town’s story shamans develop a perilous means of time travel to allow their most intrepid explorers to journey back into the past to save the town´s tales before they can disappear.

The context:

Covid-19 social distancing and lockdowns have had a severe impact on families’ mental health for both children and adults. Social interactions and conversations in the home are key to supporting children’s social development. Reading for pleasure is one of the most powerful aids to improved mental health. Evidence suggests that bookshops are increasingly becoming important community hubs at this time as customers turn to them for a bespoke, knowledgeable and personal service to support their children’s reading development as well as places for human contact and support.

The experience:

Storyhaven is a table-top reading and roleplay game for children aged 8-13 years old and their parents to play together over 3-6 weeks at home that centres on a live immersive theatre and storytelling event to be staged during a children’s book festival. The experience aims to boost a love of reading  and books and encourage playful social fictions within the family and community that could be transformative of mental health and social wellbeing.

Families first read the rulebook, create their characters and play the opening episodes of a richly illustrated reading game via an app on a mobile or tablet. It allows families to choose their own path through the narrative, talking decisions over together that will influence the outcome of their experience.

Episodes for families to play together are interspersed with episodes for children to play on their own, which creates a powerful boost to their private reading habits, as well as helping to generate the social storytelling aspect of Storyhaven by encouraging retelling of lone adventures during the next episode of family gameplay.

Inclusion and diversity

Participants design their own characters and backstories, stimulating deeply personal roleplaying that could be transformative of stressed and habitualised family relations during the Covid pandemic, as well as making the story more responsive to readers from diverse backgrounds.

Storyhaven embeds diversity in its storyline of people of different cultures and origins having travelled across a futuristic ice-age Earth to arrive at the town gates of Storyhaven, bringing with them the varied richness of their family’s stories. It alludes to different traditions of world storytelling, as well as opening up gaps for the participation of diverse families in the experience, in which everybody is invited to make the narrative their own.

The illustrations have been designed to be an inclusive invitation to people of different ethnicities, genders and body shapes to imagine themselves at the heart of the story. By the end of the experience families will have cocreated up to 60% of the narrative as well as nearly all the representations of their own characters. This puts control of fictional representations firmly in the hands of diverse audiences, which is powerful for inclusivity. The feedback from the teachers of the diverse classrooms we playtested Storyhaven in was highly positive, especially about how the experience successfully engaged children from more disadvantaged backgrounds, who might not have the same support with their reading and writing at home, through its enticing video-game like mechanics.

Cocreating the narrative

Opportunities for children to contribute to the developing narrative are woven into the storyline through the device of an adventure journal that children have to complete during gameplay, keeping track of their game stats and notes on their developing player character. This gives children a voice in stories written for them, boosting their ownership of the experience and leading them towards a real literacy achievement by the end of the experience as they write the story of their adventure in its engagingly designed pages.

Families must rewrite the town’s stories they save on their adventure, so that they can deliver them back to the present through the shaman’s time portal. This device sets up the live immersive storytelling event that families will be invited to during the children’s book festival. Guided by actors playing characters from the narrative, families will enjoy various ice-age activities in the theatre foyer and café to help them become immersed in the storyworld before entering the theatre auditorium in small, socially distanced groups to deliver their stories to the town shaman, sharing their creativity with other families while stoking Storyhaven’s fablehearths and driving back the encroaching ice.

After the live event families then return home to finish the last episodes of the game in the intimacy of their families, driving the inspiration and excitement of the live event into their private lives in a way that could leave a legacy of increased engagement with books and reading.

Structure and examples of content:

The rulebook

The adventure journal pages

Episode 1 of the reading game for playing together as a family

Episode 2 of the reading game for children to play alone

Episode 3 – the live immersive event at the theatre with the town story shaman

Episode 4 of the reading game for playing as a family

Episode 5 of the reading game for children to play alone

Closer collaboration between a theatre company and their local independent children’s bookshops:

The boxed reading game would be distributed by the bookshops, so that families could play the opening episodes of the reading game at home ahead of the children’s book festival. During the festival families would be invited to attend a live immersive theatre event at the collaborating theatre to bring the families’ reading experiences thrillingly to life.

In the children’s bookshops the theatre company would find passionate champions of an innovative immersive storytelling experience that aims to welcome more children into the world of books and reading, as well as a wider-reaching, modular box office capable of opening up new local audiences to their work.

In the theatre company bookshops would find engaging immersive storytelling pracitioners able to offer their customers a thrilling interactive extension to their reading experience, as well as a social opportunity to meet other local families, building a sense of community and further supporting children’s social development.

This community engagement and local business model brings together theatres/storytelling centres and children’s bookshops/libraries as key deliverers of arts experiences that create family and community cohesion, but who rarely share knowledge and industry experience. Storyhaven would open new audiences for all partners, driving new communities of readers to the theatre or storytelling centre and theatre attenders to the bookshops. We hope this innovative might be replicated in other regions in the UK and abroad in the future. The Egg Children’s Theatre, Theatre Royal Plymouth, Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books, Discover Story Centre, The Lowry, The Leeds Playhouse, and the British Council are all tracking the idea as a way to engage family audiences in the new normal in which people will be emerging from lockdown into newly social community arts scenes.

Research behind the project:

Storyhaven poses the question:

In these times of isolated childhoods what do children need from their fictional experiences?

While firm believers in the power of books to allow children to guide their own formative experiences, we suggest that now more than ever there is a need for more social fictions than the lone experience of silently imagining into the words of an adult author. Rather than happening away from the family in the private spaces of book reading, maybe children’s stories should be something that the whole family partakes in, bringing the transformative power of fiction to bear on those close and sometimes restrictive family relationships that wield most power over children.

There is an increasing trend of adults seeking out and enjoying stories written for children. Storyhaven speaks to this adult need to reconnect with fictional experiences they had in childhood, as well as childrens’ need to be accompanied on liberating fictional journeys by the closest adults in their lives. It creates a fictional experience that adults and children can truly share in together, showing how a children’s story could be written with these interactions in mind from the start, rather than them being grafted on after the book has been written through author talks and extension activities.

Piloted with school children:

Storyhaven was piloted over 6 weeks with a class of 30 school children from October 2020 to January 2021, first in the real classroom, then transitioning to a virtual classroom during the latest national lockdown, using live-streamed Zoom connections to the classrooms to replace the live theatre event. We have had excellent feedback from the teachers involved about the engagement of the children during the experience and how much the form allowed them transformative social experiences with their peer groups, alleviated the stress of Covid social distancing, and boosted their love of reading and creative writing skills. Storyhaven was an especially powerful welcome into the world of books for reluctant reader boys and children from disadvantaged backgrounds who might not usually have engaged with book activities.

The children were so excited about sharing their stories with the shaman. There was a real buzz in the classroom after the live-streams. It really surprised me how Storyhaven engaged those students I’d struggle to interest in reading and writing through other means. It was a real strength of the programme.

Mrs Ochiltree, Year 6 teacher, Brentry Primary School.

Collaborators involved in the project:

Gareth Osborne is the lead researcher and writer of Storyhaven. He is an award-winning children’s author, who has worked as a content developer for Pearson Education on their digital reading schemes. He has over twenty years of experience as a teacher using drama and storytelling to engage children in the classroom and is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Bristol investigating new forms of immersive storytelling and learning for children.

Fran Moulds is a theatre director, writer and performer, who creates theatrical experiences to inspire and empower young people. She has worked extensively with immersive theatre companies such as Punchdrunk and Coney. Fran directs the live-stream immersive theatre interactions between the pupils and the actor playing the Storyhaven shaman.

Tom Bowtell is a writer, director and performer, and artistic director of Kit Theatre Company, whose mission is to use Adventures in Learning to improve children’s educational engagement and achievement and unlock their creative talent. He has received various awards for his work, including a BAFTA. He plays the role of the Storyhaven shaman.

One to One Development Trust are an award-winning arts organisations who work with marginalised communities to co-produce digital storytelling projects. Through their multi-award-winning in-house digital storytelling and games development studio, Dreaming Methods, One to One’s Digital Director, Andy Campbell, is helping to develop the story app and website for Storyhaven.

Nele Diel is a well-renowned game illustrator based in Germany, who has illustrated board games such as Battle for Rokugan by Astorian Press and Valhal by Tetrahedron Games. She produced all the illustrations for Storyhaven.

The research project’s home is the Department of Theatre at the University of Bristol, the School of English at Cardiff University and the School of Creative Industries at the University of Bath Spa, where it is supervised by the adaptation and theatre for young audiences specialist, Dr Katja Krebs, children’s literature scholar and young-adult author, Dr Catherine Butler, and new digital media writer and scholar Professor Kate Pullinger. Playwright and academic Judith Bryan at the National Centre for Research into Children’s literature also provided crucial input into the project’s conception.


Storyhaven’s development has been supported by the South West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership, the Temple Quarter Engagement Fund at the University of Bristol, and the Bristol Doctoral College.