Children creating a shared story world in an intercultural exchange

Intercultural learning has less commonly been investigated from children’s perspectives (Walton et al., 2013), as classic intercultural studies were typically based on adults’ experiences of moving abroad (Piller, 2017). In our recently published study (Piipponen & Karlsson, 2021), we investigated how children (aged 10-11 years) created a shared narrative culture during an intercultural story exchange. During the exchange, two classes in different countries exchanged stories that were told using the Storycrafting method. I have written more about the exchange in a previous post.

Because the research on interculturality has its roots in adult learning, the way educators and researchers envisage the role of interculturality in schools is often related to becoming an interculturally adept citizen and employee in the future adult world. There is not yet much theorising about what intercultural learning should look like for children, who partake in the same cultural activities as adults, but are also different to adults (Johanson, 2010). In our study, the children in the two partner classes had the freedom to tell stories about anything they wanted, so they ended up exchanging cultural products (stories and illustrations) made by children, rather than cultural products selected by adults (typically national imagery, customs, clothing, food, festivals, and so on). We followed the children’s exchange of narratives over the course of an academic year (2016-2017) and analysed how the children engaged in the exchange activities to create a shared narrative culture between the exchange partners.

Findings: How a shared narrative culture developed over time

The children’s shared narrative culture was created over time during situations where the children actively negotiated meanings when telling, listening or reading, drawing or viewing, or imagining or discussing the stories. Here are some examples:

  1. Each child in the class had a turn to tell a part of a whole-class story. The story began as a realistic description of “two cool boys singing a rap song”. Turn by turn, fantastical elements started to enter the plot, which culminated in a rap battle between a unicorn and a dragon. The audience laughed each time there was an unexpected turn, which encouraged the tellers to continue incorporating strange and fantastical events into the story.
  2. The partner class drew pictures of “The Two Cool Boys…” story. They chose to illustrate scenes that reflected the exciting or unusual aspects of the story. Some drawings of pink unicorns were rather inspired by the original story than accurate depictions.
  3. The storytellers received the illustrations of their story from the partner class. The drawings were displayed in their classroom. The children viewed the illustrations carefully, discussing them with their peers. They recognised the story events that the drawings depicted. They talked about “the weird story”, and started to form a shared interpretation that influenced the mood of following stories they told during the exchange.
  4. At the end of the school year, some children asked if they could write a thank you letter for their partners. “We loved making fun and crazy stories to send to you and illustrating your stories! You must think that we are crazy!” The partner class reciprocated with a thank you letter as well, where they responded, “You are quite okay, not silly! Thank you for the weird stories! Although our stories were pretty weird too.”

As can be seen over time, the children created a shared understanding between the two partner classes that evolved into a narrative culture of “weirdness”, where most stories involved surprising, fantastical elements that frequently made the listeners laugh. The thank you letters express how the children sincerely enjoyed and appreciated the story exchange with their partner class. Although the children never met face-to-face, a special bond was formed between the partner classes. They were connected by their shared narrative culture.

Discussion: Aesthetic experiences and a community orientation support encountering in a third space

The children’s experiences of encountering others through the stories were aesthetic in nature (Dewey, 1935/2005). An aesthetic experience involves not only thoughts and language, but also emotions, senses and the imagination in the process of meaning making (Kinnunen, Viljamaa & Estola, 2016). According to Dewey’s theory, an aesthetic experience is the fullest mode of experiencing. It often occurs while creating or appreciating artworks, but moments of everyday life can also be experienced aesthetically (Dewey, 1935/2005). The children from both partner classes engaged in the exchange of stories and drawings enthusiastically. Those situations were full of emotion, imagination, creativity and communality. The children were savvy about the shared story world that was being created, and they drew from their cultural repertoires (knowledge, experiences, memories) during the process.

The study uses the concept of a third space (Bhabha, 1994) to explain how cultural change happens in practice. The students’ actions during the story exchange, such as telling, listening, drawing, viewing, reading, discussing and imagining, are ways of entering the third space, where their shared understanding of the narrative culture was negotiated over time. The third space occurs in situations where the students negotiate a new (“third”) way of being together that is not one group’s culture or the other’s, but something else. In this study, the students found ways to connect by telling stories that would make the audience laugh, using humour, unexpected turns and fantastical elements, and they called these their “weird” stories.

For this shared understanding to develop, the story exchange situations had to involve a strong community orientation. All the stories were told either together as a whole class or in small groups. The activities involved intense collaboration between the children, and the teachers supported a dialogical classroom environment by guiding the children to listen actively and without judgement to others’ contributions. Also, the Storycrafting method is designed to support encountering as equals (Karlsson, 2013). The children felt that when creating the stories collaboratively, the outcome was more creative than what they could have managed on their own. Making stories together as a class helped the children to bond with their peers. The fun and enjoyment felt with their peers transferred to the stories, which contributed to a positive connection forming with their partner class too.

To conclude, this study shows that children engage with their existing cultural repertoires when encountering an unfamiliar partner class. They connected by building a playful, fun narrative world together in their collective imaginations. We suggest that engaging in creative pursuits together has a lot of potential for forging bonds between two or more different children’s communities. Furthermore, attention should be paid not only to intergroup interactions, but also to the rapport inside each group, as a strong community spirit transfers to intercultural encounters as well. Finally, children should be able to make their intercultural encounters meaningful by connecting them to their personal experiences and interests, and communicate with their partners in modes they are familiar with, such as storytelling and drawing.

The original research article can be found here:

Oona Piipponen

Doctoral Candidate in Education

University of Eastern Finland

oonamp (at)

Twitter: @OPiipponen


Johanson, K. (2010). Culture for or by the child? ‘Children’s culture’ and cultural policy. Poetics, 38, 386–401.

Karlsson, L. (2013). Storycrafting method – To share, participate, tell and listen in practice and research. The European Journal of Social and Behavioural Sciences, 6(3), 1109–1117.

Kinnunen, S., Viljamaa, E., & Estola, E. (2016). Esteettisiä ja eettisiä kosketuksia. In L. Karlsson, A.-M. Puroila, & E. Estola (Eds.), Välkkeitä, valoja ja varjoja: Kertomuksia lasten hyvinvoinnista (pp. 90–109). NYTNYT.

Piipponen, O. & Karlsson, L. (2021). ‘Our stories were pretty weird too’ – Children as creators of a shared narrative culture in an intercultural story and drawing exchange. International Journal of Educational Research, 106, 1-12.

Piller, I. (2017). Intercultural Communication: A Critical Introduction. Edinburgh University Press.

Walton, J., Priest, N., & Paradies, Y. (2013). Identifying and developing effective approaches to foster intercultural understanding in schools. Intercultural Education, 24(3), 181–194. doi:10.1080/14675986. 2013.793036