How to Play ‘Can You?’

‘Can You?’ is a group storytelling game. Initial efforts might sound a little listy, but give it a chance. Although it’s not designed specifically for school, maybe because it’s a family game it’s naturally differentiated. It offers chances for modeling, collaboration, and approximation. I used to play this on long car rides with my dad and brother. Now my own boys love to play at bedtime when Pepere tucks them in. Those tuck ins stretch well beyond bedtime.


To begin, your storytelling crew decides on a setting and a main character. Many of our stories involved a village boy from the depths of a jungle. It felt exotic and exciting, like the kind of place where you could bump into real problems. My sons’ stories were often populated by a little pteranodon or a little monkey. But there’s no reason why your story couldn’t be set in a familiar neighborhood or school.

You should also decide with your storytelling crew whether you’ll allow flying monkeys or stick to Macgyver moves. Huh? Do you want all of the solutions to be relatively plausible, something you could probably do with realistic materials? Or is it OK for a touch of magic to creep in during tight moments? I suppose you could just as easily say, no fairy godmothers. Either version is fine…you just need to agree so no one is startled in the thick of it.

One person begins telling the story, “One day little monkey was playing in the tree with his family.” The storyteller introduces the character, gives him a purpose, and might even describe more about the setting or what the character is carrying with him. “The sun was shifting higher in the sky and little monkey felt a familiar rumble in his tummy. Boy, he sure was hungry. That got him thinking about the delicious, juicy fruits his family had enjoyed last week. Little monkey sure wished he could have more of those fruits. They would be just the thing to satisfy his hunger.” And then the storyteller gets the character into some trouble! Maybe little monkey got lost, met a jaguar, fell and got hurt, bumped into a snake… Whatever it is, when the character is well and truly in trouble, the storyteller looks at his crew and says, “Can you?!”

Another storyteller undoubtedly cries out, “Yes! I can,” then continues the story. This new story

teller gets the character out of trouble…and into new trouble before passing the torch. “Can you?”

Your story can be as long or as short as you want. The game can wrap up in a single session or carry on across years (well, it can if you’re a family).

It’s not uncommon for the story to be a little lumpy. That is, you likely have storytellers of varying skill in your crew. In a family Dad may be a natural storyteller akin to Mem Fox, but little brother may pull the same banana peel out to fix every problem. Don’t worry! Everyone gets to hear the strongest storytelling of the group and give their own approximation. Like anything else, with practice and reflection, we get better. For some of us, better means sticking to what’s plausible, or exploding a moment instead of rushing the solution into a new problem like a grocery list. “Little monkey caught the vine so he was safe. But now, oh no, there’s an anaconda about to squeeze him to death…the end.” Some of us are working on showing how the character moves, how he feels, what he says, or making the setting come to life with sounds and smells in addition to the visual backdrop. We can each have our own storytelling goal, or we can agree on one to share.

I’ve tried it as a kind of back pocket activity in classrooms, but I’m curious to see what would happen to a writing community that embraced shared storytelling as a regular part of their time together. If we spent more time storytelling would our writing get stronger? Would we start to see the kinds of craft moves that we’d been hearing together in our ‘Can You?’ stories?

I have a hunch we would.

We’re going to try it in second grade next year? Want to play along?


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