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)

Parallel play teaching

I drew today… well, it was a collage really, (but it could have been drawing if that is what the children had been doing when I arrived at their table) and I wished afterwards that I could have  recorded it , because I think that the value of a teacher creating art alongside children is that one can scaffold their learning dispositions (rather than their learning content) by how one models and shares one’s thinking processes.

I have watched teachers who can do a quick cartoon of a dog or some such, Disney style… and they are just doing a party trick which they have practised… they are not modelling creativity, playfulness, problem solving, or resourcefulness or self talk or any such stuff. They are just performing, entertaining. I don’t like this style of drawing in front of children. It definitely suggests there is a right way. And apparently this is supposed to be the biggest hazard  of drawing in front of children: should we therefore not sing, dance, garden, write, cook, sew, go on the trampolines, read, etc  in front of children? Should we not do any activity that requires a modicum of creativity and decision making? I don’t agree but I do believe that the WAY you do something in front of a child will powerfully influence the degree to which you empower or disempower children’s learning dispositions.

If you had been a fly on the wall that morning in this kindergarten, you might have heard any number of sentences from me like the following..it began as follows…and of course there were pauses and other conversations and other people’s voices, but hopefully you will get the idea!

“Oooh, I like what you have done with the little squares. I want to try that.. how did you make them curve? (tries it)Oh look, they are a different colour on the other side…I thought I had a pattern but I didn’t…

What could I use for eyes? Hmm, maybe not that..  that doesn’t do what I want, and it’s hard to cut…oh look,. I could cut circles out of this crepe paper.. where are the scissors? You are having trouble with those scissors? Try another pair ! sometimes it’s the scissors, not you , that are the problem…. some scissors are rubbish!

I need a mouth… what did you use? Oh look I can move it and here it looks like she is a bit crazy, and here it makes her look happy… or even upside down!! Now she looks pretty sad about something! I’ll put it so she is smiling! ”

Oh, her head is so big, there’ s not much room for her body. Rats. Maybe I could do a different mouth, higher up… ? or move her neck?

Now something thin for arms? Hmm,  sticks, straws? Maybe straws, maybe I should fix the other sellotape holder so we can both reach it… there we go…

Now fingers.. little bits of pink wool! oh but they don’t stay where I want them… wait! I could use a glue stick.. oh, you don’t have any? Do you know where I can find some? Right, I’m back.that’s better..now they stay in place and THEN I can stick them down properly with sellotape..

Oh lordy, she needs clothes.. what, you think she looks like a witch?  Oh because of her big round scary eyes? You’re going to make a scary witch? (children are coming and going) I’d like to see how you make your witch  look scary… they have warts on their noses? oh, yes, there’s the witch in “Room on the broom”, isn’t there? does she have a wart on her nose? Well, mine is a happy witch.. see, she has a feather in her hat… (sings yankee doodle) I wonder what colour I should  make her hair.. what colour do you call  your hair, Charlotte? Red…maybe this crayon? do you think this crayon looks close to your hair colour? Maybe I should add a little brown? I think I ‘ll make the ends a bit curly so it looks more like hair… yes, you do have curly hair, Martha… maybe I mean ‘wavy’?… yes, that sounds better/ more like what I mean ..wavy.. yes, that looks good… I like that!

Back to the eyes… see how, if you look in my eyes, there is a big round part? And in the middle is a little black circle? I think my eyes look scary cos they don’t have the middle bit.. the pupil… (cuts two tiny paper pupils and tries them out in different positions.. surprised, eye rolling dismissal, looking left , looking right, looking catatonic.. looking angry) … I think this position makes her look friendly… there we go.. now  a dress.. oh, she could have an orange dress to match her fiery coloured hair.. I’ll scrumple it so that it looks more like cloth.. oh nice.. and I’ll scrumple the waist so it’s a skirt… oh now she needs boots! Dancing boots!! She is getting happier and happier.. how do you make boots… that looks weird… what do boots look like? Maybe I will draw it first and then cut it out… I’ll draw it on the back… oh, that’s better! Nice green dancing boots…

What! Your scary witch is threatening mine? Because I haven’t got a broom stick? You’ve got a red broomstick.. and what’s that yellow part on your picture?…. A wand!! Oh lordy.. a wand..I don’t have one!  What!? You’re turning me into a frog! No, I’m a happy go lucky witch… I don’t want to be a frog.. you’re going to change me back? What, now I’m a kangaroo? (Starts to sing, because the words  have a very bouncy rhythm)

 

I’m a  happy go lucky kangaroo                                                                                                                                             I eat frogs                                                                                                                                                                              Why don’t you?

I used to be a witch,                                                                                                                                                                  I’m not anymore                                                                                                                                                            Someone mean came to the door                                                                                                                                     She waved her wand   (what rhymes with wand? Pond! Oh thank you that’s good)                                                  And threw me in the pond                                                                                                                                                And I’m not a happy go lucky witch any more!

 

So what did I do in fact? I like to think that I succeeded in being non-didactic and that I modeled some of the vast potential of the various materials, that I modeled ways to talk to oneself while being creative, that I indicated that I thoroughly valued and respected their way of working because basically I was being rather child-like and playful and whimsical and sanguine myself. I hope I strongly modeled that there is no ‘right way’.

One of the books which they read to the children at this kindergarten also reinforces and affirms the concept of ‘no right way’ and that book is called ‘If Picasso painted a snowman”. Well worth a look.

This next post is about how children learn and it refers to two very different methods of research, both of which came up with the same answer, which is that “direct instruction really can limit young children’s learning”. Check it out. One of them is the work of Alison Gopnik, whose research is repeatedly stunning, It seems to affirm that what I was doing was probably pedagogically going along the right tracks. “Wow! look at this,  I wonder what this does?” When a teacher acts clueless, full of wonder and curiosity and a bit like a fellow child,  the children are much more likely to respond with intelligent, thoughtful, playful explorations of discovery on their own.

And here to the right, is that clueless playful adult, who had a really good time, and really likes her batty witch!

Never, ever draw for a child?

What was once a wise recommendation to support children’s drawing without drawing images for them seems to have gradually evolved into a powerful absolute with regrettable consequences for teaching practice. When I heard of a centre where this guideline has been extended to an instruction to ‘never, ever draw with, for, or near a child’, I was galvanised to explore why it is that I sometimes do draw with and even ‘for’ children, and why I instinctively feel that it is of value.

What are the perceived hazards of drawing with a child? Primarily, children will think that yours is ‘the right way’ and will slavishly imitate you, thus cramping their creative self-expression and motivation to discover for themselves.

Being creative in front of children

Should one then also not assemble a train track, sing, make mud pies, dance, or tell a story in front of a child in case they conclude that these are ‘the right ways’ to do those things? Will children therefore think their own efforts will not be good enough? How does one scaffold creativity? And what if Grand-dad doesn’t know these principles? What is the danger if younger children emulate older siblings and peers? What happens when a child receives five different impressions of how people sing, draw, work in the garden, use playdough and tell a particular story? Clearly children successfully cope with this, just as they are able to learn three languages before they are five, simply through exposure. Should we stop being creative because children are watching? I believe the reverse is desirable: that we should model (and advocate for) creativity. And challenge, as Simon Nicholson did when he proposed his theory of loose parts, the elitist mindset whereby ‘the vast majority of people’ have to leave creativity in music, painting, architecture, literature, and the sciences to the ‘creative gifted few’.

Giving children a leg up

Many children who seem to lack confidence often confirm Ursula Kolb’s and Pennie Brownlee’s contention that, ‘Draw me a cat’ really means ’Please show me how to get started on a cat’. They are asking for a way in. Brownlee suggests saying, ‘Where would be a good place to start? Maybe with a fat tummy?” If this fails to inspire, I find that after modelling a brief sketch, on my paper, of an oval body sort of shape, children will then happily add a variety of ‘appendages of cat’ to their own ‘fat tummy’.

There seems to be an implicit assumption in ‘never, ever’ that teachers cannot draw with a child without automatically falling into the role of ‘expert’: ‘This is how you draw a cat’. I suggest another way: “This is how I, Evelyn, draw a cat, and I know my sister draws them like this. Of course it depends if it’s a mean daddy tom cat or a kitten?” And then to start drawing something that is not too caricatured or predictable. Maybe find a cat and look at it! I tend to draw Steiner style, with the crayon held on its side, with shaded areas of colour (see photo), rather than hard outlines.

If you have not experienced contexts that support artistic creativity, play and exploration at your own pace, then you might be a four year old who avoids the drawing table. I find it disturbing to meet an increasingly large number of children with this attitude. I suggest the underlying causes may include lack of access to materials, pressure to write as soon as the pencil grip appears, insufficient appreciation or interest, an excess of inappropriate praise, over direction by ‘expert’ adults who want specific outcomes or over exposure to adults who role model the ‘I can’t’ approach or repeatedly ask ‘What have you drawn?’ My own view is that there is often insufficient role-modelling and advocacy for drawing.

I am concerned that ‘never, ever’ means that some teachers rarely draw as equal artists and fellow creators, alongside children. Or that when they do, they often demonstrate (perform?) detailed stereotyped complete (and practised) images. Respectful playfulness is key, I believe. There is even a tendency for teachers to skirt the drawing table altogether, arriving only to add names to the ‘stagnant artefacts’ (Susan Wright) and a child accurately reads the subtext that drawing is not highly valued. Too many children, in my view, are learning that we never sing without a CD or tell a story unless we have a book. The arts need more powerful advocacy than the hidden curriculum that they are ‘nice but not necessary’, ‘just a stepping stone on the path to writing’, ‘they support fine motor skills’ and ‘keep them quiet’.

Visual narratives

Susan Wright in ‘Understanding Creativity in Childhood’ acknowledges Vygotsky’s concept of drawing as ‘graphic speech’ and Ray and Glover in ‘Already ready’ describe 3 year olds who read their ‘story’ consistently over a period of days to different listeners. To the untrained eye, the images look like random uncontrolled scribbles so, to appreciate the visual literacy and the increasing repertoire of ‘signs’ with which these children communicate, it is necessary to experience the whole event. Interestingly, the teachers do not write the children’s stories down as this deprives the children of rightful ownership.

Wright (2006) and Kolb (2005) articulate how children, when drawing, don’t simply create static end products , but draw in ways that are improvisational, fluid, and highly meaningful. Children often narrate a running commentary both as narrator and as the protagonists, sometimes adding sound effects too. These children gathered around a board are busy communicating collaborative working theories. 

 

 

Children often  move and use body gestures and facial expressions to amplify and clarify. They change their ideas, mid-stroke, of who the characters are. “She is a princess. I am leaving the castle”.

Drawing can be a visual equivalent of dramatic play and Wright describes it as a ‘multimodal, multifaceted visual narrative’ in which graphics (drawing),narrative (talk) and embodiment (movement) all enrich and inform each other. It’s like storytelling but in a much more fluid form. The following picture was drawn by a child with English as a second language, who was adamant that she could not draw but was encouraged and moved to do so as an accompaniment of her dictated story about playing hide and seek with her brother. Nowadays, you cannot stop her from endless creative initiative.

Given half a chance, children will move from the conservative constraints of inert paper into other ways to express themselves. Hunter who was originally reluctant to draw (see photo) drew himself saving his two brothers from zombies. Describing cutting out the zombies, he then literally got the scissors and cut them off. One could put his name on the remaining scrap and send it home but we have missed its meaning if we are not there alongside, documenting the full event. We would also have missed out on observing his delightful learning dispositions (experimentation, problem-solving, curiosity, trial and error, accepting ‘failure’ to justify another enthusiastic replay, playfulness and resilience). As you can see, my playful modelling of ‘giving it a go’ re drawing dinosaurs did not diminish his enthusiasm for drawing a space ship!

 

Parallel play, parallel drawing

When a child is reluctant, I tend to draw alongside, but for myself at first, almost as a ‘naive enquirer’. Taking on the role of ‘expert teacher’ can cast children into the complementary role of ‘passive learners’, who then lack initiative, resilience and creativity. I approach as a playful, collaborative, responsive and interested equal; as a fellow learner. I come not with an agenda to teach drawing, but instead to support a growth mindset in which learning a new skill becomes playful and pleasurable rather than a threatening test. Just like creative, confident children, I change my mind, I appraise my work, I talk out loud about my ‘visual narrative’, I borrow ideas and colours, I adapt the ‘plot’, I model ways to improvise with unanticipated outcomes. In fact, I model how we learn anything; I take risks, I try new things, I watch, I ask for help and advice from the others, I welcome ‘failures’ as interesting challenges. I do not praise or flatter fellow drawers. We are equals. Incidentally, I probably draw at the level of a competent 10 year old.

Self-expression or communication?

 

I often co-create stories with children, using a white board. Later we re-tell, act out, draw, illustrate or recreate the story, referring back to our images if needed. Sometimes I will draw their suggestions and sometimes I ask a child to draw. So, for effective and speedy communication, I do draw in front of the children, in fast scruffy graphics. This gives another opportunity to model imperfection (even laughable incompetence!) as ‘good enough’ for a given purpose. We are increasing our repertoire of accepted visual signs, augmenting visual literacy, and confirming that communication sometimes takes priority over artistic accuracy. An ‘idea of a flower’ is very different from the observed study of a sunflower. One is more about communication with others and the other is about creative self expression and documentation of observation. One is creating reality and one is recording reality. This seems to be a distinction that needs to be understood more fully when it comes to saying ‘never, ever’. I believe children are able both to use simple graphics to think and to communicate symbolically and they can also use different techniques to create a ‘work of art’. Both have their place and are not mutually exclusive.

In summary, although I would love to see children living rich, textured, colourful lives, surrounded by creative people who are still growing and learning, for many children it is a much more humdrum and predictable existence. Humanity, warmth and shared worlds are my priorities, with oral and visual literacy as secondary, but very welcome, by-products. To paraphrase Diti Hill, ‘Once the kindling has caught fire, one can stand back and leave well alone’. More and more children are needing a helping hand to get the kindling alight and for me ‘never, ever’ in this age of institutionalised childcare does not meet the needs of many children I work with. So I play on.

Brownlee, P. (2007)Magic Places.   

Dweck, C. (2010), Mindsets.   

Hill, D. (2001). Passion, power and planning in the early childhood centres. 

Gopnk, A (2000) The Scientist in the crib. 

Kolb,U.(2005) It’s not a bird yet.

Nicholson,S.(1972) The theory of loose parts. 

Ray,K and Glover,M.(2008) Already ready.

Wright,S.(2010) Understanding Creativity in Early Childhood.

Ripping paper with the flamingo family

The Flamingo Spring Festival Party ( a story to teach children how to rip paper)

One fine spring morning, Mummy Flamingo gathered her two daughters to her side and said,” Look! It’s an invitation to a spring party! ( Have a very pretty envelope and pull out a piece of paper as you start to tell the story! ) We need to make some beautiful clothes to wear. Oh my goodness what shall we wear?”.

(ask children for their ideas about what to wear to a party…. Accept every offer and add some spontaneous reason why they would love to wear that and what game or dance it might be an ideal outfit for ….)

Let’s see what the flamingo family decide to make. But hang on!  there was a problem! Although there was lots of lovely silk and satin fabric to make some feathery clothes out of, something was missing. What would WE  use to cut cloth with ? That’s right, we might use scissors, but they didn’t HAVE any scissors. They had their beaks and their…. What do flamingos have on their feet, do you think?

(Be sure to accept offers of highheel stilettos, and cowboy boots! After all, they don’t talk either!… and simply ask what is underneath the flamingo cowboy boots. What have I got inside my socks? Toes!! Yes, well the flamingos have claws for picking up things and holding onto things. )

And they also had?( gesture with your hand a long sharp beak)….yes , their beaks which could rip and tear and grab and were good for all sorts of things! Any idea of what sort of things a beak could be good for……… scratching? Yes, especially those annoying itches right round by your wings, and eating, yes, and catching fish, yes…….and fighting with your sister? Absolutely, if push came to shove.

( This is basic imaginative problem solving and leaves room for ‘righter’ or ‘wronger’ answers. Which leaves children feeling empowered , as opposed to tested).

So there they were , with big sheets of pink silk, and no scissors and also they had no iron! So it was very important not to scrinkle and scrunkle the cloth because otherwise their party clothes would look very shabby indeed!

“Now”, said Mummy Flamingo, “ do you think you two girls could rip this cloth into nice straight strips for me?” and she left the room to ring up and tell their aunt about the party.

While Mummy was out of the room, her daughters thought they would be helpful . They were very excited about the party and keen to start.They each grabbed a piece of cloth with their claws, and tried to pull the cloth apart. Well! what a mess, Mummy was not pleased when she came back into the room!

( take a single sheet of newspaper, tabloid size, not the bigger one, and hold the paper long ways and pull the ends as you grab and then squeeze it tight in your grip and pull ( like you would  hold a  christmas cracker…………..then show the children what a scrunched up unripped cloth it was. )

Mummy Flamingo showed them very carefully the two ways that you can hold the paper in order to rip it into straight lines. From short side to short side, or from long side to long side.

( model this for the children. You will undoubtedly hold your pinched finger and thumb of each hand right beside the finger and thumb of the other hand. But simply focus on the concept of long and short. Even draw a rectangle on the white board……………?)

And so they learned from their oh so clever mother that cloth likes to rip short side to short side, making nice long strips. Mummy suggested that they work together on one piece this time, using their two beaks. So the girls had a go, but although they tore from short side to short side, and it no longer needed scissors ( which they didn’t have) it came off in such irregularly sized bits. Why couldn’t they do it the way Mummy did it? in nice long strips? They got such odd shapes and all different lengths and sizes. Again, Mummy came back and sighed. “Girls, we don’t have that much cloth. It’s true that our friends, the mice, could help nibble the edges straight and it’s true that Mrs Hippopotamus had offered to sit on the scrumpled pieces for a few hours for us, to flatten them, but we just don’t have that much time. The letter must have gotten lost in the mail, because it has arrived late and the party is tomorrow.

“Now, girls, watch very carefully how I rip the cloth”, and she showed them again. “Now, Esmerelda, take hold of the paper where you want it to rip, grip it firmly  on the edge with your beak. And now, Matilda, you come and stand right beside Esmerelda, but face the other way. Bunch up real close so that your cheeks and your shoulders are touching, and NOW, you walk towards me, dear Esmerelda, and you walk away from me, dear Matilda”. Don’t stop squeezing the paper tight in your beaks and keep going!

(model it with your hands, clearly showing the pinching right at the top of the paper. Squeezing the paper tight,. Get up real close together, and then hold your elbows up so they can really see your finger hold, and slowly rip down the strip. )

“Bravo! Wonderful! Spectacular! “shouted Mummy Flamingo. “Do it again! Do it again!” and they did. They ripped strip after strip after strip. Until they had a whole pile of strips, all about the same width and the same length……….( more maths and geometry)

“And now I shall start sewing!” she announced, gathering up all the strips. But, do you know, within a few moments, she came flapping back in again!

“Children, children!, I need your help. Your aunt was on the phone and everyone in the whole whanau wants to come too and we need many many many more strips of cloth. There simply isn’t enough time.

And her daughters said, “Let’s ask these children sitting so politely here on the mat. They have been watching and listening. I am sure they could help. Could you help? Do you know how to do it too?”

If any children say ‘yes’ ( and I think they will) then the daughters can say’” See, our troubles are solved. Here you children. Take a piece of cloth, and remember

1. Short side to short side.

2. Hold your finger beaks right beside each other on the very edge

3. Make your fingers walk: one towards your face and one away from your face!!

You will have a bit of a mess but they children have an opportunity to begin learning how to rip…. And in a way in which is sort of fun, sort of memorable, and sort of without pressure to get it ‘right’ hopefully.

The end.

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.