Rata arrives at the totara tree and promptly collapses.

Whenever I am in a centre and want to tell a story with table top puppets,  there is invariably a problem that all the two legged characters behave as though they are permanently inebriated, There are the cute family dolls with bendy bodies and large wooden feet and, with a chair or a wall, they can cope relatively well. But there they must stay.

Then there are the Lego characters who  have large heads and smallish feet and cannot maintain their balance without a vehicle to prop themselves up in. Steiner dolls are great at standing for the most part but they don’t survive very well with children reared on indestructible plastic toys. Also they usually tend to be girls because their flared bodies lend themselves well to a skirt shape. And of course they have no feet. But this is surmountable with some imagination. Which children usually have ten fold or more. Read More

Loose parts in story telling

Today I had the pleasure of one day’s work in a distant kindergarten. Story telling is rapidly becoming mydefault setting and I decided, since it was wet and uninspired but we were sheltered outside around a big table, to record the vignettes and stories which the children volunteered as I got to know them.  I drew and then wrote about one girl and her absent brother and their  matching raincoats, then about a scarecrow made by another boy at his church out of a spoon and an iceblock stick which he brought to share at  mat time, about how one girl was going to go to Hawaii and swim with the dolphins, learn to surf and eat a coconut! Such diversity and colour and range! Soon they were writing their own books, adding illustrations and then dictating the words for me to write.

A story about one girl’s mother who disappeared into a ‘pink mole’ for three repetitive pages ( she drew her in pink, and then surrounded  her in pink and disappeared her. I was relieved when she emerged, albeit with a broken foot and needing support from her daughter! Another wrote about a monster who ruined a party by throwing all the cupcakes up into a tree.  One book was all spots, page after page, but getting less and less………’as she got tireder and tireder and tireder’. To my surprise on the last page was a picture of a very  happy large person. And the girl dictated to me… ‘and so she had a spot of something to eat and was happy and not tired any more’. What a great sense of word play! Or maybe she was unaware of it?

I learnt every child’s name, was supported by the children to get them right and learn more about them and be introduced . The boys came later but once they saw what was up, they were into it as well. ‘This is a zoo, and here is a burglar, He wants to steal the laser light from off the sleeping elephant’s trunk, but the dog barked and the elephant woke up and the burglar fell off the zoo and smashed his head’.

I read the whole book to them at the end of the day and had their complete attention as they listened to a record of their whole rich and diverse community and looked at pictures they had drawn or helped me to draw. I left the book there for them, so I have no photos to share. I have never done this before quite this way but it was wonderful to have a sense of really meeting each child in their own context, occasionally having to explain what I was doing and asking if they could clarify what their play involved  so that I could write it down, but mostly just taking what was volunteered and recording it, or simply recording what I observed.

Again, I am struck by how storytelling makes use of the theory of loose parts as much as play does. When the children have free range in their minds and memories of everything that they have ever imagined, heard, seen  or read about, they are at complete liberty to assemble characters, props and landscapes in whatever way they like and the results are , as usual, creative, playful and delicious. I wish I had made a photo copy. One could even enlarge it and make it into a re-visitable document. I wrote it but it was very definitely ‘their’ book.

Being a stone and jumping off the skytower.

Today, two boys at a kindergarten were playing in the trees at the kindergarten , announcing their story lines aloud as they played. One was a huge giant cracking the earth open ( with a piece of stick) and eating people like me (Why? Reply: Because I’m a baddie!) and the other repeated over and over about a rock falling off the sky tower and attempted, it seemed , to create the high tower (with a stick). They were actually playing together and yet had no problem with the complex and conflicting story lines.

After a little dialogue, I agreed to be a stone falling off the Sky Tower. It seemed preferable to being eaten by  a malevolent giant.  I asked if I would be pushed or if I would just jump. Jump, he replied. It seemed hard to my adult mind to jump from a flat place on the grass surrounded by a nest of dead twigs. I wanted to be higher up. The boy did a lilo-pumping gesture and announced that I was now higher up! How easy it is when you play! I felt a bit embarrassed at my limited imagination. I held my nose (for some instinctual reason) and leapt out of the stick circle, crouching as I landed. When they called me back to be eaten by giants , I explained that I couldn’t because I had shattered into a million pieces when I hit the concrete. They looked at me in a quiet, satisfied and secretive sort of way and I knew I had played well. I left them then. This is another beauty of play. You can leave whenever you like! You simply wander off. The beauty of these children was that they went right back to their intrinsically motivated game, not at all reliant on the attention of an adult.

I had a delightful morning. I was on ‘outside duty’ and the teacher explained that they didn’t put toys out, except for spades really. If the children wanted anything, they knew they only had to ask. Sure enough, there was no clutter of ‘stuff’, just swings, open space, a slope (!!) climbing frames, a vegetable garden, a sand pit ( with only spades and three trucks), a few twigs and sticks from the recent storm, and children. I have  never seen such vigorous, collaborative and  imaginative play in a mainstream centre. The social skills , the communication skills, the bartering of roles and relationships were just marvellous. These children  clearly had a sense of well being, belonging and empowerment.

When you have no toys and no props, bar a few sticks and a few bits of fabric, you have to tell people what your game is about. You have to be articulate and ask for what you want; you have to clarify if you have a problem.  A boy ran past, calling out ‘Who wants to play armies?’ and two boys rushed off to join him. Another two boys spent over an hour creating boundaries around a ‘construction site’ in the sandpit. There were no ropes or signs, only scratchings in the sand and some pretty powerful assertions of a foreman-like quality, but there was a huge amount of spoken language.

I was reminded of another kindergarten where I worked as a reliever last month. Their centre is being refurbished and they are temporarily rehoused in a church hall, so they have to set up every week, and day. Therefore they don’t put much out. The teacher commented that with less play ‘stuff ‘, the children  were playing in much more complex, collaborative and creative ways.

Why is this the case? If one takes a parallel from an adult context, one might imagine the difference between going to Rainbow’s End and going to a West Coast beach. At the former, one is impelled to try everything, in a sort of retail therapy consumer daze. At the beach,  and nothing is laid on and one is responsible for one’s own amusement and exploration patterns. One’s creative and playful juices start to flow as one gathers shells, climbs a sand dune or invites someone to race into the shallows with you.

A big and crucial  difference at this centre today compared to many where I work is that there really is enough room to run and chase and roll and tumble. Most centres don’t have enough space for children  to  get up to even a slow trot before they hit a fence. And as for a slope! Heaven forbid,  a slope! They might get up speed and hurt themselves. I saw no one fight and no one injured by a stick today.

Why can props be important in storytelling for young children?

Some  storytellers use no props at all; they use only the combination of their voice, their delivery, the story itself and the imagination of the audience, and that is the way story telling has been done since time immemorial.  And as Jonathan Gottschall said in his wonderful book, ‘The storytelling animal: how stories make us human’, this sort of storytelling can be quite sexy ( see the admiring gaze of the young woman to the left of the story teller)!

However, in the context of early childhood education, as opposed to being told a story in the arms of one’s loving parent, there are good reasons to add props of some sort.  Key protagonists in the story can be triggers to a child’s memory of the sequence and pattern of a story. ‘Oh yes, then there was the man with the bundle of straw’.

(Maybe if I had had props, I might have stayed on topic…. my apologies in advance, for meandering.)

Often, in my experience, a centre may have a small kete with the laminated characters of a story – Mrs Wishy-Washy, the tub, the animals, etc. – and if the children are lucky they have access to these at times other than mat times. The children will often play the role of ‘teacher’ and tell the story to other children, while manipulating the plastic pieces. Often this is a performance rather than as something that pleases a child to play with on their own.

I prefer to have three dimensional objects, ideally of a natural material, as well as aesthetically pleasing and texturally satisfying to hold. Why?

They offer the equivalent benefits as a basket of items for heuristic play. Sensory stimulation, and appreciation for the shape, feel, warmth, weight, balance, colour and texture of a ‘prop’.

After telling a story a  number of times, using these props, I like to make the items available on the story table or nature table. Here, inviting fabrics, loose parts such as stones, shells and crystals, as well as the story characters, invite the children to retell the story in their own way. Story telling and play are first cousins.

an invitation to play/ tell a story

New characters, places, events, and memories from home can be seamlessly woven into a simple plot through the medium of the child’s imagination. The laminated ‘set’ allows for no extra characters such as a dirty and uncooperative Mr Wishy Washy, or another ten animals, or a dinosaur. Such additions can add complexity to the plot, requiring imaginative problem solving.

More than one child can play at the same time. A story can be co-created, collaboratively rescripted. Again, this reminds of how older children often engage in dramatic play, with much discussion of how many Mummies there can be in a story or whether or not the baby can talk.

Having a small flower arrangement which is lovingly and visibly refreshed by a caring teacher adds the message that these things are precious and loved. This nature story table usually reflects the seasonal changes and includes small treasures from nature. Such a culture of care and respect for the various less robust props is something that can be achieved primarily by modelling from the teachers.

In mainstream centres, my practice has been to combine the nature table with the story table. Driftwood can create a fantasy landscape, along with other loose parts. Ideally a centre will have enough ‘people’, ( who can stand freely), enough loose parts, and enough beautiful fabrics for children to create their own stories as well as recreate ones they have been hearing ( more than once). I am reminded of the adult teachers at a story telling workshop who, when invited to find props for telling a story, wandered happily around the room with a basket, to all intents and purposes as absorbed as if it was ‘retail therapy’ with someone else’s credit card! In much the same way, children need choice and the ability to select and create.

Too often, it seems that teachers have the idea that 50 people. or 30 dinosaurs or 40 cars will be ideal for playing. Far from it. Usually a diverse selection of characters will appear in a story, each with their own different agenda, and this is often hard to find. I think it has to do with a slightly OCD attention to tidy storage. It reminds me of Diti Hill’s comment that ‘children do not live their lives in curriculum fragments’ and equally, stories are not conveniently told with large quantities of similar characters, selected by the teacher.

Three boys, previously preoccupied with shoving all the blocks off the table onto the grass, became involved alongside me in a story about hospitals and car accidents. Three small blocks in the ice cream box, on its side, became a hospital bed. The tip up truck became the ambulance, the woman with the missing foot was rushed off to hospital, and the woman’s son raced after him on his motorbike. The three boys added dialogue, sound effects, their own ideas, solutions to problems, unexpected changes in the plot and a stream of language – oral literacy, fine motor skills, and cooperative social skills, here we come!

Although an observer might consider that I was ‘just playing’ (and I was playing!) I would call this ‘teaching’ – scaffolding, modelling, allowing, inviting and generally adding one more brick to the wall of a story telling culture.