You know my name but you don’t know my story.

I posted this quote last night and today a long session of play at the play dough table made me realise just how true that is. By playing alongside the children and indicating to them that I was up for some play in which we could say that something was ‘whatever-we-liked’, so long as there was a passing resemblance, I started by wondering what two pink objects left over from earlier players could be..’Are they sad wizard hats? Are they limp pink carrots? Or are they collapsing pointy fingers?” The children agreed on hats, so after trying to make them stand up as happy wizard hats,  I took them both and mashed them together and made one solid wizard hat. Meanwhile the children were making other things and conversation sort of went around things that sagged or collapsed or broke…oh, yes, one boy, Richard, let’s call him, leaned over and broke one thin sad wizard hat in two. And it broke, which is why I made one out of two.



And then it stood up like a little mountain and I pronounced that it was happy.I grabbed a piece of card and drew the mathematical equation : one thin sad wizard hat + one thin sad wizard hat = one fat happy wizard hat.( I am  blaming too much coffee!)




(Digression: much later on, another child at the table made two fat circles and I enquired if they were binoculars or zeros or doughnuts, and he pronounced the latter. When I looked his way a while later, it had become one fat doughnut, so I drew another mathematical equation showing two small doughnuts = one big doughnut. Strangely, although I knew nothing about this particular lad apart from his name, it turned out that he was a bit mathematically inclined! Later,he made a fat sausage lying vertically and laid a thinner one across it horizontally…

Is that a sword? I asked .

He said no, it was such and such, and I eventually appreciated that he was saying that it was a sad plus! Because its arms drooped when he held it up! I love the imagination of children…. I was way behind on that one! How do you know about plus, I asked him. ‘My Mum taught me’, he replied.

So back to the main story…well, there were about four or five stories (as many stories as there were players!)…but ultimately they organically wove together with a bit of adlibbing narrative commentary by me.

Once they realised that I took my (and their)stories and play seriously and did not find it funny when Richard (and others) mischievously squashed my creations   (that old sand castle scenario!) they started playing in a similar way. There was a boat dock and boats and there was a huge pumpkin wizard who eventually arrived in a frying pan boat







and there was a family of smaller wizards laughing (apparently)  as they made their way in a punt to the island.











There was a mother wizard who rode to the island on a tiger,










there was the happy wizard hat who came to the island by boat,








there were some ‘ball stairs’ on the island which had to be climbed upon arrival








and there was a lion (made by me to see if I could make something that looked like a lion.. we tested it on another teacher and she was able to recognise it. We worked out how many legs it would need – ‘Three’ said Richard….’How many at the back?’ asked I ‘Two’. ‘And at the front?’ ‘Two’, and you, my gentle readers, know the rest…. And he got a tail and a mane and so on.








Well, we still haven’t reached the crux of this post!! The boats needed tying up, according to Richard, and so there were fat sausages rolled into rope and the scissor boat was tied up,




and the small rowing boat was tied up and the tiger that carried the mother was tied up.


And we all generally agreed that it was not a good idea to let things float away. That we wanted things to be where we left them and not to find the tiger had wandered off into the forest.



This became such an important topic of conversation that Richard and I retired briefly to the carpentry table to make a different sort of boat that you really could tie up. With a nail at the front to loop the loop of the rope over, and we came back and tied that to the island.

And then it was lunch and hear this, dear reader, during lunch I (being  a reliever for only a couple of weeks and not knowing any of the backgrounds  of any of the children) enquired about Richard’s story . It turns out that Richard’s parents have recently separated and he has acquired two new step-parents in a very short time and each of the new partners have already got children themselves as well. That makes for a universe that is pretty full of things that look like they are, or actually are, in danger of floating away. I find it very moving to discover this link between his inner world and the play metaphors he chose, whereby to express and in some way maybe resolve his understanding of some pretty big challenges. I am full of admiration for his emotional integrity and the way he is using ‘just playing’ (so-called) to find a meaningful metaphor for what he is experiencing in his life.

I recently read a book called ‘The Examined Life’ which suggests that if we can’t find some way to tell our story, then our story starts to tell our life for us, and we are no  longer the major scriptwriters. The unspoken script runs our life for us. I find this a very true statement. This was referring in particular to a client whose first twelve months of life were traumatic (but was told otherwise, and could never understand why he always felt afraid and acted accordingly). Here, through the subtle metaphors of happy and meaningful  play, a boy is making meaningful patterns and sense out of his own story, and placing himself in a pro-active and powerful role within the script…as the tie-er upper-er.

Later, just before home time, I was cutting up some plastic boat shaped forms to fill with old play dough for tomorrow and Richard and Lily helped me cut them out. I asked what boats sometimes need, and we agreed that sails could be important and Lily thought a captain’s wheel would be good, and Richard suggested an anchor. So we made anchors. It’s hard to get a piece of wool to stay ‘tied’ to soggy play dough so I suggested that we could tie the ‘rope’ around an ice-block stick and bury it under the entire boat- shaped lump of playdough that filled the form. He liked that and made yet another one, this time tying one end to an ice-block stick and one end to a large pine cone. He generously offered the latter to a friend because he now had four boats altogether to take home. He went home contentedly showing  his  magnificent fleet to his mother.

Do trolls wear silk or wool?

Walking around the house in search of appropriate fabric to dress a troll, I notice that I instinctively make a face a bit  like a mean troll. There must be some subliminal belief in sympathetic magic. And it does seem to help although if I keep doing it while cutting, gluing and painting,  I start to get sore shoulders from hunching meanly and threateningly over my work!! Maybe it’s time to make some fairies and lighten up!!




I am trying to  make a troll for the Three Billy Goats Gruff. It’s not easy. I made one in three minutes for a storytelling session last year, using a base that was intended to be a giant for Jack and the Beanstalk, and just tied some clothes onto him and gave him hair. But the four year olds all actually gasped when I pulled him out from under a cloth.(He was too big to fit under the bridge!). So he is probably too mean , too big and not good enough. Here he is. He does stand well though, to his credit!


And here is another ‘troll’ whom I found on a Gisborne beach but is also a tad big and a tad scary but what an amazing piece of driftwood! And how extraordinary that he works from BOTH sides. I drew in an eyebrow and darkened one eyeball. And he is not free standing.


Once again my problem was how to make a free standing puppet/character who would be resilient for play, the right size and aesthetically pleasing in some way. Felt seems too soft, cone figures too wide to fit under bridge, and so on and so forth. Then I found this statue at the shop called Habitat for Humanity in Henderson and bought  her for a dollar!

I don’t know what the central column is but all her clothes and wraps are made with paper. Shiny strongish paper which can be shaped into lovely flowing lines. She is carrying a ceramic pitcher, holding it with two ropes, you can just see it over her right shoulder. She is far too tall but she gave me a great reminder.




And I remembered a character I made two years ago with a group of children after a long session of                   collaborative splooshing and gooping with PVA , paint and ‘stuff’ on  a large piece of slightly shiny paper sellotaped to the table. When we had finished ‘exploring its scientific properties’ , we  had to tidy it up so we started rolling and scrunching. One child made a ball with it, and it all stuck together because it was so soggy-ish, but not TOO soggy (it became a very dangerous ball once it dried!) And I suddenly saw the possibility of squooshing a large piece into a doll. So quick, so perfect and so so so sturdy! She just needs a painted face and a little fabric scarf and she would be a great character in multiple stories.






And so I started shaping the body of a troll onto a base                                                                                          made out of two Yakult plastic bottles, and papier mache pulp and then painted pinkish on the head. I made the arms out of twists of paper which I attached to the body in the same way you apply a bandage to a finger so that it stays on. Well, something like that. You need lots of strength and thickness around the armpit joint cos that is where the pressure will be applied. In this photo the troll has his arms out but I realised the bridge would have to be very big to accommodate such a gesture, so I reshaped them, before drying, into a sort of ‘put your fists up’ posture. They took a few nights on the heater to get dry and hard and strong but they sure are. And what does a troll look like?  well, that is a hard question to answer! Sort of hunched posture and very large hands and ideally a big nose?

Here he is lying under the bridge which is being  made to fit him.

Next time I will make enough room on top of the bridge for both the troll and the goat to stand up there! For now, the troll has to stand beside it, on the bank of the ‘river’.




And now the question relating to the title! Does a troll wear silk or a                                                                   felted wool patchwork sort of coat? and do they have beards and how do you make a scary face? with regards to the latter, be aware that felt pen is a bad way to start because you are stuck with it. I am using my watercolour paints and have tried a number of times. But not happy. He looks too cute. How does one do mean eyes…slitty looks asleep, round looks surprised, …..great discussion material to have with children?!






So how does the other one look in wool. Better really  because it was a thicker fabric and I used the hot glue gun instead of the PVA. And I used a number of small bits which looked scruffier and better than a well tailored outfit. Also I didn’t hem his jacket sleeves because he is a troll and it doesn’t matter if he looks unkempt, which saves time! In fact, I used the water colour paints to daub  him with a bit of  mud here and there!




I think that is enough for now. I need to go back   to actually creating things for the Titirangi Market tomorrow  ( last Sunday of every month). I will keep you  posted as to how I resolved his  hair, the facial expression and whether or  not he has a beard!


And as for silk or wool, I think next time I will experiment with leather. I have some nice soft earthy coloured bits. Probably the rougher ‘suede’ underside. Mmmm, yes, I think that could look good. And do trolls wear  hats?

Jack and his beans at the play dough table.

I can’t get past what wonderful opportunities stories are for language extension,  and in this context, fine motor skills, not to mention a familiarity with pattern, sequence, and  numeracy, etc . Like any new activity, story ad-libbing  takes time to become part of daily culture and expectation. After a few weeks of exposure to the possibilities of recreating  stories while at the carpentry table, play dough table or sandpit, the children increasingly join in, make suggestions and generally take over! Which is, of course, the goal.

In the meantime I get to have quite a lot of fun being the primary narrator and maker. There are so many opportunities to ask children to support: to remember the next bit, to make another eight coins for the giant or to make the cupboard behind which Jack can hide, or to invite powerful vocal participation for the Fee Fi Fo Fum bit. ( One girl leapt to her feet in absolute delight, crying out,”That’s what my Dad says to me!”)

So here are the images, and I hope that you as the reader feel encouraged to go for it too. Children do not expect perfection. If you say, ‘and this is the chicken which lays golden eggs’, then they accept that that is what it is, mostly. If they don’t accept it, then pause and maybe someone else can offer a more acceptable hen!

This beast ( on the right) is admittedly the hardest character to create but  it’s just one egg like shape with another egg like shape for the head, four more for the legs… more conversation possibilities here about what else does a cow  have? horns, tail, etc……

And so the story begins with Jack (in the middle) taking the cow to market to sell and trading her for five magic beans. Numeracy! ( if  you need justification!)



This is Jack in bed with no supper, an irate mother and five beans thrown out the window. One long sausage wrapped around her back gave me the hands on hips posture I hoped for.





And what do you know! in the morning , the beans had germinated and sprouted and continued to grow. Much rapid sausage rolling and leaves attached.

At this point you have probably realised that I was far too busy narrating and rolling to be taking photos.  So these are post action mock ups! And with no danger of including photos of children for whom I have no website permission. At the time it was very lively, with about six or seven children involved and participating and listening intently.





And here is that mystery person at the top of the bean stalk with words to share with Jack, who was amazed to discover that she knew his  name!






This is the part I really rather like and that is to be modelling ingenious ways to overcome the lack of ‘correct’ props and to improvise. I regard this as a sorry lack in our current consumer society; one can buy every thing and one does not have to exercise ingenuity and imagination. So here are some plastic tongs doing an admirable job of being an imposing castle door for Jack to see as  he walks along the road to the front door!    It was a bean stalk and transformed ( by obligingly lying down) into a road!








Here is the Giant’s wife with a large table (mug) and Jack     can just be seen on the other side of the table.. And now come the footsteps!! And the Fee Fo Fi Fum….







Giant and Giant’s wife and golden chicken on the table after dinner and Jack is hiding behind the cupboard.

The idea of having a playdough base for the castle was by chance but it did make it possible to stand up ‘people’.




This is the bag and the ten golden coins which Jack will also run off with once the Giant is asleep. And then the harp which sings and can call out to its master when Jack runs off with it. And in the last photo the Giant is chasing Jack down the road, with the harp calling out. Alas, there is no photo of the Giant lying collapsed in a crumpled heap beside the chopped down bean stalk. One girl suggested that an ambulance would be needed. I told her that no, actually the Giant was dead because he was so heavy and he had fallen such a long way down. Should I have accepted the more benign change to the storyline? I certainly could have discussed it with all the children, but alas I did not, merely marvelling at what an enormous hole Jack and his mother would have had to dig…opening up more dialogue about being able to employ people to help you when you have that much wealth. The end.





Making sturdy storytelling characters with children.


This short (I hope) article carries on from yesterday’s one about making standing figures for table top puppet shows. This one involved the children as well and could easily be adapted to make a set of characters for stories with five or six characters…Rata and the Totara Tree, ( Rata could have a headband and a small feather glued in. And I want to get some quilting scraps from my quilting friend to make him a simple loin cloth…keep watching!), Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, the  men in the Three Little Pigs ( and many blessings on all those four legged animals who can hold themselves vertical with no help at all!), and so on.

Step one. Take any pale pink cloth AND brown. A bag of 50 polystyrene balls ( this seemed the safest way to use up the ones I found in a resource room).  Ideally, stretchy T shirt material. Cut a square so it is easy to gather the four corners and grasp around base and tighten, finally fastening with a rubber band ( not too big, although actually it does help create a neck, so ok, big is ok.)




Step Two. Prepare stiffish card by drawing circles around a tea plate. Draw in the diameter and cut in half. The card should be such that children can cut it and stiff enough to be glued with a (cold) glue stick without caving in.

By the way, the picture should enlarge if you click on it. I made about twenty five heads in no time at all, and I prepared the card as in the photo the night before. (Good fabric scissors make light work and should never be used on cardboard – be ruthless and so keep them sharp for yonks!)


Step three: Originally I made the cone and stuffed the head in but that was a mission. Best is to curve the card into a cone and once it holds its shape, sort of, hold the head inside the cone, (having cut out that little circle shown in the drawing, so the cone has a top opening ).

Keeping the head firmly inside the cone, ask the child to clamp the cone firmly closed with either sellotape and/or a stapler. Allow no chance to unravel and release the head. Now wind around and around the neck with some think sticky tape of sorts….not sellotape I think. I found a thin sticky blue tape that stuck well and not too wide.


Although the head should be firmly wedged into the cone ( don’t make the hole too big!), it is then good to wind tape such as masking tape or some such around and around a few times, sticking onto cloth and onto body.

Step three: You will also need, once you arrive at work with your booty, the following:

1.Scissors so children can cut card. ( It slows down the onslaught and demands. Children can help each other so that fast ones aren’t ready too fast.) .

2. Lots of small precut cloth fabrics. I had a bag of light chiffon bits which are ideal. The clothing is attached with a cold glue stick so the lighter the better. Long strips of something sturdy can be cut into lengths and made into scarfs if the tape is too visible etc or if they have Isadora Duncan aspirations.

3. Glue sticks.

4. Bits of stiff card to wrap wool around for hair.

5. Variety of wools to make hair out of.

6. A few felt pens to create eyes and mouth. Demonstrate on card how small dots can look better than trying to draw an eye, let alone two, on such a small head.

7. Sellotape to attach wool to section of card to wind round and round to make the hair.

8. One hot glue gun on the side just to attach the last twist of fabric around the body, like doing up a button, cos the cloth only sticks to where it is sticky and it is quick to just fix it firmly and finally. Once the hair is on, it’s a fiddle.


STEP FOUR: Add glue generously. Choose fabric and wrap around, fixing it closed with the hot glue gun if need be.






STEP FIVE: Choose colour wool for hair. Stick one end to piece of card( do it longways for long hair, shortways for short hair). Let the child wind it round and round and round ( remarkable how little winding children do…and remarkable how some children completely doubted that they could do it. Till they just did it, after watching me for a minute).


STEP SIX. Insert a piece of wool under the loops of wool and tie it tight along one edge of the card. Then help the child to snip along the other edge of the card. Hot glue the hair in place, being sure to join threads down the back of the skull and leaving an opening at the front. Although making a fringe is fun! See Miss Yellow Dress and Yellow Hair above.



STEP SEVEN.  Carefully trim hair, add face details, and maybe glue up inside the cone so that the edge of the garment can be softly folded under (as you can see on pink haired doll on the left).




And there  you go! I will try to make a simple set for a story for next week. And I will share the images with you.  Thank you for reading if you have made it this far. And please feel free to share and let people know that I offer storytelling workshops in the Auckland area.