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.

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.

Learning through play

Witnessing this cameo of play, on my last day in the Paua Room, was a real highlight of my time there. One of my interests is to explore the role of play in a child’s learning journey, and investigate what role the teacher and the environment play in that process. A leading educationalist, Vygotksy, said,” In play, a child is always above his average age, above his daily behaviour; in play, it is as though he were a head taller than himself.”

Having never seen Brody participating in sociodramatic pretend play before, I was delighted to observe such linguistic, social, emotional and dispositional competence.

Brody, Max, Callum, Savanna and Sarah were playing underneath the climbing frames when I gently enquired as to ‘who’ they were and Brody went into a volley of explanations about who was whose brother and who was Spiderman and so forth. (It was very clear to him but, alas! I missed the fine details!) An ‘injury’ had occurred and I ran to get the play stethoscope for Brody, who gently used it as a plaster.

The game was complex and unspoken for the most part and involved many  journeys to and from ‘home’, much high speed running from Brody and Max, a few ‘injuries’ (healed with ‘plasters’/ leaves off the tree) and frequent urgent injunctions from Brody about the need to get home as fast as possible!

I noticed how Max (usually a powerful game initiator himself!) and Callum accepted Brody’s leadership. Sometimes they got confused as to whether they were being Brody’s henchmen or his opponents!- tempted by more predictable themes of conflict but Brody’s quiet consistency of purpose and his confident belief in his own unexpectedly collaborative play ideas won them back each time. The two, younger and quieter, girls clearly felt very comfortable in Brody’s ‘care’. With the language, gesture and actions of a tribal leader, a warrior, a doctor, a father, a provider and a protector, he was the inspiration and social glue of the game’s fabric.

I saw a heart-warming display of kindness, energy, imagination, social aptitude and language: Ok, we all have to go home. Come on! Let’s go!”  She needs a doctor. Here’s a plaster. “Afternoon tea with my big brothers. Mmm!! Spicy tea!”

When the game moved indoors, the whole whanau came too, with Brody still guiding the tone, the mood and the quality of social interactions around the table. He was full of warmth and enthusiasm, sharing the family corner and its props with imaginative and gentle collaboration.                                                                                                                                                                     Brody, I was thrilled to observe how you wove your life knowledge and your ability to imagine into your play, exploring and practising such powerful life skills and dispositions. What a treat to observe. Thank you! (Recorded by Evelyn. October 20th 2013)