Sitting in a circle of antsy preschoolers, Nell Pierce, a teaching artist, spun a story in a St. Paul classroom last week about a group of hungry animals looking for food in Africa.

She used finger puppets, too — so many, in fact, that she could’ve used an extra hand.

Inspired, the kids whipped up their own tales, and the first, involving a tiger, a lion and a shark, seemed to fit the spirit of Pierce’s performance piece.

But the second, pitting three little pigs against a hungry wolf, led a facts-conscious visitor to wonder if things had gotten off track. In response, Laura Mann Hill, observing the action for the Children’s Theatre Company, said, “It doesn’t matter. This is just about starting to know what a story is.”

Storytelling is in style, and the kids are winging it in the Early Bridges program being offered this year in preschool classrooms at Benjamin E. Mays IB World School and the Pre-K at Rondo early learning hub in St. Paul’s Summit-University neighborhood.

The program is the result of a partnership between St. Paul Public Schools, the Children’s Theatre Company and the St. Paul Promise Neighborhood — with the latter pledging $7,000 to the project in hopes of expanding it to three other schools now being served in a 250-square-block area in the heart of the city.

Early Bridges is a preschool spinoff of the theater company’s Neighborhood Bridges program, which is offered at the elementary level. The program uses storytelling and acting to get kids to talk, listen, wait, share and, the staff hopes, be ready to excel in kindergarten.

Studies show that children who hone their oral language skills at an early age are more likely to achieve long-term literacy success.

The St. Paul program is expected to build on the theater company’s previous efforts by also incorporating stories collected from elders in the city’s historic black Rondo neighborhood. As of last week, the story shelf was bare.

But Gina Hass, program manager for the Pre-K at Rondo early learning hub, has delivered in the clutch before.

Learning opportunity

Last year, Gov. Mark Dayton led a successful push to open up new preschool funding statewide, and St. Paul seized on the chance to take advantage of it — in part by asking Hass to create new classrooms at the Rondo complex. She had only a few weeks but pulled it off.

A former preschool teacher, Hass worked previously with Mann Hill on an Early Bridges program at St. Paul’s American Indian Magnet School (AIM). So, when asked this year to find grant money for Pre-K activities at Rondo, Hass thought of how the AIM kids blossomed and decided Early Bridges should come to Rondo — with a twist. Tales from the neighborhood — ripped apart 50 years ago by the creation of Interstate 94 — should be part of the curriculum.

“We are in a historic part of the city,” she said. “It’s important to keep those stories alive.”

Mann Hill, too, has roots in the neighborhood. Her grandfather, Richard Mann, 104, still lives there, and two years ago he was featured on the “Today” show as a “snow-shoveling sensation.” The two women collaborated on the grant application, and the Promise Neighborhood accepted it.

“We believe it’s important for students and community to come together to understand where they came from and what direction they’re heading,” said Sommer Green, education partnerships program manager for St. Paul Promise Neighborhood.

Early Bridges is about one-third of the way into the first of two 15-week sessions that will serve 140 kids altogether. It’s hoped that at least seven community members or elders will get involved by the program’s end. Green said she’s confident it’ll come together.

Last week, Green was there when Pierce worked her puppet magic. Pierce also sensed when kids might need a quick activity to help them focus. At one point, she had them rise slowly like trees and shake their arms as if they were branches. Then it was back to the story, and a few lines delivered in singsong fashion: “When your tummy is hungry and it starts to hurt / Just work together for dinner and dessert.”

Mann Hill, seated about a foot from the floor in a tiny preschooler’s chair, smiled and exclaimed, “I helped write that.”

Next week, when teacher and students resume the story, the children will learn the smaller animals had been tricked into helping a lion find food. Rather than share, the lion kept it all for himself.

But don’t tell them. It is best to keep things spontaneous. 612-673-4109