For public libraries


  • The story
  • The context
  • The experience
  • Gameplay
  • Cocreating the narrative
  • Inclusion and diversity
  • Examples of the materials
  • Project timescale
  • Academic research behind the project
  • 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 1-3 weeks at home. It blends the liveness of oral storytelling, with an immersive website and digital materials, and physical props delivered by public libraries through an engagingly graphic designed paper envelope. The experience aims to boost a love of reading  and books by encouraging playful shared reading experiences within the family that could be transformative of mental health and social wellbeing and welcome new readers into the world of reading and books.

The public libraries distribute the paper envelopes to participating families. Inside, there is a map of the town of storyhaven and pages of an adventure journal, the cover of which families will be invited to design and make at home to help them personalise their experience. Families will be directed, via a QR code in the envelope materials, to the Storyhaven website, where they will be able to access the digital reading game episodes, explore different locations of the town through interactive illustrations, and share their player characters and stories online with other families.

Storyhaven uses the power of immersive theatre and the enticement of video-game like digital aesthetics to encourage families who are new to the world of books to establish positive reading habits at home.


Via the website families will access the rulebook, which will immerse them in the storyline and help them to create their player characters from one of the Storyhaven town guilds. Then they will read episodes of a richly illustrated reading game on a mobile or tablet. The branching narrative allows families to choose their own path through the story, 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.

Cocreating the narrative

Opportunities for families to cocreate the developing narrative are woven into the storyline through the device of them having to travel back into the past to save the town’s stories before they disappear. They then have to rewrite the stories to deliver them back to the story shamans in the present through the time portal. Children complete an adventure journal during gameplay, keeping track of their game stats, their developing player character, and notes for their stories. This leads them slowly them towards a real literacy achievement by the end of the experience as they record the story of their adventure in the journal’s engagingly designed pages.

The families’ immersive gameplay is supported by prerecorded video messages from one of the town’s story shamans, accessed through the website. This allows families to experience the entire reading game for free once they receive the initial game envelope from the public library. There will be the optional opportunity on the website to buy tickets to a weekly session of Zoom theatre, where an actor playing the shaman will encourage small groups of participants to share the stories they have written live with other families.

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.

Examples of the materials:

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

The town map:

One of the video messages from the town shaman (these are rehearsal materials, which are currently being refilmed by a professional cinematographer):

Illustrations by Nele Diel:

Project timescale:

November 2021:

Example of the game materials envelope posted to participating library authorities.

A fee per participating family negotiated to help cover the cost of the game material envelopes and the livestream Zoom sessions.

January 2022:

Delivery of the full quota of envelopes to participating public libraries

Free optional Zoom training session for librarians to help them encourage families to get involved with the experience.

February 2022:

Public libraries start distributing the game material envelopes to families.

Families play the experience during the months of February and March accompanied by social media activity to increase awareness of and create excitement about the project.

April 2022:

Feedback sessions to learn from the pilot

Discussions about ongoing Storyhaven delivery

Academic 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 with funding by the South West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership, the Temple Quarter Engagement Fund at the University of Bristol, Bristol and Bath Creative Research and Development, and the Bristol Doctoral College.