First jump out of your plane, and then discover your parachute!

In storytelling improv theatre workshops, adults attempt to rediscover the skills they once had as children. There are numerous sayings in this art form, such as ‘First jump out of your plane, and then discover your parachute’ ( ie. Don’t pause to consider if it is safe, or funny, or ‘good enough’, just jump!) or ‘Everything you need for a scene is right in front of you” or “The only security is the fact that there is no security”. As an early childhood teacher seeking to document learning dispositions, I  followed  Jules and Georgia  and Cypress with a camera and, to my appreciative surprise, realised that, in their play, they unerringly follow these maxims. Before I knew it, I was drawn into their ‘story’!

I first came across the three of them, conveying small containers of water precariously balanced in a wheelbarrow all the way across to the other side of the playground, and then carefully pouring the contents into a tub, all the while talking about how they were  making ‘ingredients’ (muffin making was afoot indoors with no doubt talk of such stuff!). One of our improv warm up games is to shout out any random idea such as “Let’s all be rabbits” or “Let’s all faint” or “Let’s all make a batch of scones” and each time everyone enthusiastically shouts back, “Yes, let’s!” and then we all proceed to do the actions until  the next callout! You can’t get it wrong, and you all have a wonderful sense of enthusiastic belonging as the actions rapidly and erratically shift and change. This is what the trio did:  “Let’s get more water!” “Yes, let’s!!” and they all hared off to get more! Again and again they enthusiastically ran and gathered and returned and poured.

Then I noticed (and pointed out)  that the tub had a hole in the bottom, like all good garden tubs! Actually filling the tub was clearly a minor detail…the goal was to run, to share, to agree, to have a purpose, to be physical, to feel urgent….to play! So then they tipped out what water was left in it, loaded it up onto the wagon, the girls clambered aboard, and Jules proceeded to drive them away. The trip is underway, the action is happening… and now, a late ‘parachute’ or motive appears! Jules announces that the tub needs to go to the dump! There is another game in improv, called ‘Yes,and…” where you up the intensity in a partnership game and this  is what happened. The wagon is now wet and therefore ALSO has to go to the dump! I pleaded on behalf of the wagon and also pointed out that we have two wagons. They were delighted by a new challenge… how to get the second one out of the shed and master the niceties of three point turns. Jules  worked extremely hard to lift the wagon AND the two girls, past the trucks and back out on to the road to the ‘dump’.

Cypress held onto the wet one as a trailer. At this point, I suddenly appreciated that the long and committed friendship between the three of them is based partly on the fact that Jules loves the physicality of the numerous challenges that arise out of the imaginative story lines… and the girls were never short of ideas, as the three of them continually invented reasons for extending the trip and upping the challenge level.

And here it comes …..Whoops! They realise that they have forgotten their lava guns and have to return to the place where I first met them… and this is part of all good storytelling. A good story returns to previously mentioned people, events and objects and reintegrates them into the story.

All three children decided that their guns were now not good enough.( That the guns needed to provide different powers, in fact). Again I appreciated how the story drives the action, just as much as the action drives the story.  Regardless of what the guns looked like, both the story and the action required them to be ‘not good enough’ and destined for the dump as well!   Off the three of them went, inside to the glue gun table.  While they were gone on this new challenge, I was so completely involved in my  self-appointed role as saviour of the ‘doomed’ wagon that I decided to trick Jules so he would not know which wagon to  discard… I made both wagons wet and wrote ‘Please don’t take me to the dump” in the bottom of each one! And then what happened? Five other children came belting past, leapt in to the empty wagons and drove off!

What a lesson in not being fixed on an outcome! What a perfect opportunity for me to experience how it works when you have to co-operate with 30 other children. You have a carefully calculated plan, you put something down, and then it’s gone! What flexibility, adaptability, generosity, and active social skills one has to develop in this world of early childhood!! (AND in improv!..we adults have to learn to let our ‘plan’ go if another person unexpectedly changes the narrative into a new direction. It requires an enthusiastic generosity and a letting go of one’s ego). One sees younger children who are still learning this, wailing with angst that someone has THEIR toy! But Jules and the girls returned shortly, all wheeling prams! They did not need the wagons. But the girls love to be pulled so they abandoned their prams and leapt into Philip’s wagon.  The story simply takes  another turn and no one tries to drag it back to some  earlier, completely arbitrary, story-line.(Although I admit to being tempted!)  The children just stayed in the present. As long as there was movement, dialogue, action, collaboration, apparent purpose and a forward propulsion of the narrative, then it’s all good. Again and again, I noticed how the girls’ imaginations and Jules’ love of a physical challenge were made for each other, like fingers in a glove. When the girls wanted to be mermaids,  Jules dug furiously to cover their legs with sand. When Jules looked like he might be abandoning play and going inside, Georgia  and Cypress raced after him so that he could save them from a monster, “ A monster, there’s a monster, Jules!” and back he came to help to save the day. And this was only a snippet of their day! The creativity required to be a successful player  is gargantuan! Many adults find that the skills learned in storytelling improvisation stands them in good stead in all the other areas of their lives… it helps to have a sense of humour, flexibility, imagination and a  creative ability to improvise on the spot! So thank you, Cypress, Georgia and Jules  for letting me play too!                        (Recorded by Evelyn. July 2018)

A sense of agency and storytelling.

    Storytelling is alive and well, and in good hands! 

I had the privilege of working at a  kindergarten today and noticing how a storytelling culture is an accepted part of their daily routines. And how empowering it is for children when adults accompany the children into the domain of storytelling and play. When children tell their own story and when they use their imagination to create their own plot and narrative, this can be a wonderfully empowering thing. One has complete ownership and a sense of agency.

As Vivian Gussin Paley says: “The teacher asks questions about the intentions of the storyteller and the actors. Does the boy say something when he’s looking for the dog? How about when he finds the dog? It is an open-ended dialogue, and only the author and the actors know the answers. This makes it extremely interesting and creative for the children and teacher. In most other situations, the teacher knows the answers to the questions.”

I think Paley’s quote sums up a lot about the value of oral storytelling.     The child is not regurgitating to order, he/she is not being tested for recall accuracy; instead the child is firmly, playfully, indisputably in the driving seat. And I see it to be a wonderful and invaluable thing. And for many children in the 21st century who do not have ( as I did) the luxury of being free unsupervised agents (often outside ) for the best part of the day, this freedom in the realm of imaginative storytelling is a super important modern day urban equivalent.  I suspect.

(This learning story includes both made up and known stories but even the latter were revealed to be devoid of ‘right answers’!)

It is also the child’s domain, as storytelling is second cousin to the dramatic play which occurs all day in the sandpit, the dress up area, the home corner, the art corner etc. It is in the realm of storytelling and dramatic play that children are at their most creative, most imaginative and most empowered.  In both mediums, one has to work with whatever materials are to hand, one has to accommodate one’s peers and collaborate and find solutions.

Today I played with Alex. First we were in the sandpit cooking and coping with a wild wolf in our midst. Then he brought me story books to read, then we shared lunch at the same table, and finally we spent about an hour at the playdough table creating stories together with other children.

First, in the sandpit, Alex told me the whole plot of Little Red Riding Hood and I wrote it all down. By the time we got to the end, it was apparent that three or four children all had different ideas about how the story went. Did the grandmother really hide under the bed while the wolf was pretending to be her? Did the woodsman open the door with his axe? And was the wolf tied up or killed? No one had the final word but it was great material for complex dialogue and lots of language! And fun.


Then, after lunch, I found myself at the play dough table and spontaneously told the story of Jack and the Beanstalk, which Alex listened to with complete and total absorption. This was followed by the Three little Pigs and finally the Billy Goats Gruff. The ability of the children to follow each nuance of the plot            ( all the while accompanied by quickly squidged play dough to represent the  different key characters) with steady focus was quite wonderful to me. And afterwards they all told their own stories, sort of side by side, and simultaneously, with a great deal of imagination, fluidity  and flexibility, incorporating what ever the others had made!

Alex  mainly had a football team but they had to get into a boat when a river suddenly flowed past and it turned out that it was a policeman’s football team, and there was a wonderful moment when I thought Alex said that it was not a safe, or was it that it was not a cave, and then I twigged. He had in fact clearly said that it was not a ‘save’ and I had missed the soccer meaning!! But Alex was admirably patient and determined to be understood and I got it eventually!

Alex, it was such a wonderful experience to hear you talking and explaining and to see how you incorporated threads and images from different stories and different people into your own play, and also your ability to focus and become completely involved.   Very exciting too was to see how confident all the children were to squish the play dough into their OWN shapes (not cut outs!) and declare what it was. I am not used to seeing children who trust ( and who are trusted to trust) the skillfulness of their own hands. Great stuff!

In the photo above (not included) he is holding up two fingers to let me know how many sisters he has. He told me that he brings them to his parents because they always prefer to come to him rather than to the parents and so he has to take them to you guys!! Another great story in the making! Thank you, Alex, it was great to meet you. (Recorded by Evelyn. June 2016)

Gabriel running

Dear Gabriel, today we took pictures together! You ran the whole circuit of the playground and I took a photo of you as you ran back towards me under the monkey bars. Around and around and around you went, and each time your smile was bigger and your movements more exuberant, and it was the highlight of my day.

You reminded me of how easy it is to forget that it was only a few months or so ago that you found being upright still a bit of a new adventure. Now you  are  mastering full speed running and your pleasure and your delight and your wholehearted participation were just such a gift for me.

May we never forget how blessed we are to have legs and arms and to be able to leap and jump and breathe and feel alive. You made me want to dance, which now I remember was one of our first points of contact. Ah yes, I remember ……you did not care for the feel of sand on your bare feet on that very first day I met you in the toddlers room. I wonder if you like it better  now?

Thank you for remembering me and for sharing your joy in being alive with me.

(Recorded by Evelyn. July 2013)