The Ugly Duckling or the Strange Grey Duckling

Yesterday at work, some children were unkind to another child with the standard ‘ I  don’t want to be your friend’ line, which is hurtful. A standard adult response is ‘We are all friends here’ but we know this to be untrue. However, ‘We all try to be friendly here’ rings a truer bell and can be followed through with more success. After this conversation, a student and I looked through a great basket of books labelled ‘Friendship and feelings’ which was on the centre shelf. We found a few good ones and I wondered about telling the story of ‘The Ugly Duckling’, and said I would do it as a prop supported story the next day.
When I got home, I  had second thoughts because the original  is hugely long. Then I read a comment about it from wikipedia which made  me wonder if it were an appropriate story after all.


Bruno Bettelheim observes in The Uses of Enchantment that the Ugly Duckling is not confronted with the tasks, tests, or trials of the typical fairy tale hero. “No need to accomplish anything is expressed in “The Ugly Duckling”. Things are simply fated and unfold accordingly, whether or not the hero takes some action.” In conjunction with Bettelheim’s assessment, Maria Tatar notes in ’’The Annotated Hans Christian Andersen’’ that Andersen suggests the Ugly Duckling‘s superiority resides in the fact that he is of a breed different from the barnyard rabble, and that dignity and worth, moral and aesthetic superiority are determined by nature rather than accomplishment.[1]   Not cool.

A third reservation arose when I thought about the word ‘ugly’. This word does not appear to be in the vocabulary of most four and five year olds wherever I have worked, and I certainly don’t  want to be responsible for introducing such an insidious and cruel form of unkindness. So even the title had to be changed to ‘The Grey duckling’..

To overcome these problems and to make it pertinent to the issue, unkindness to fellow children, I decided to make various changes.

I wanted …

1 to make it shorter

2 to make it about a duckling that was different, bigger and ‘grey’, rather than yellow.And certainly not ‘ugly’.

3. i wanted to make it a girl, but there is a bit where a spiteful chicken says the following line : ‘My advice to  you is to  either learn to purr or to lay eggs’. I was reluctant to throw away such  a  line…… so he stayed a boy, but I would  like it to have been a girl, because girls are more prone to the exclusion game in my view. I remember doing it myself, and today at work the student recalled a child at her school who was shunned by all  because he was always dirty. In retrospect she realises why there were always two white lines running down his cheeks from his eyes, that they were made by the tears which had washed away the dirt. she still remembers his name and his sadness.

4. I wanted to ensure that the duckling was portrayed as proactive, kind, helpful and warm hearted.

Then I googled ‘storytelling to encourage kindness between children’ and found an amazing page in a book about Vygotsky…. it won’t let me cut and paste from the sample pages but the page number is 300 and the link is

And then I started to edit the story….  but still need to chop it more. i combined the ideas of the wild ducks and the wild geese and had the ducks get shot and fall into the water beside the duckling.

Today at work we had the storytelling squares but the weather was so glorious that they were mostly outside and creating stories is a great rainy afternoon sort of event. But we were drawing and I drew the key picture for the ‘strange grey duckling who was different’.  Which was wonderful and makes me want to  write another post all about the ethics and dilemmas  about drawing for, or in front of children. But it definitely is another post.

I came  home for lunch and ended up grabbing a few cloths and objects and taking them back to work on the off-chance that I could try telling the story in the last 15 minute mat time slot. Which I ended up doing. To a silent, attentive and very  absorbed audience. It is a complex plot and I used my drawing occasionally to make a point and I used my props and I invented things on the spot that made the ‘duckling’ a kind-hearted animal who never gave up being considerate and kind even when very downtrodden.

I noticed that I felt a catch in my throat when I got to the end and he bows his head and waits for them to attack and instead sees his reflection in the still water.

I forgot to do my musical introduction, so I backtracked and did it after the second picture, and they loved it. So do I!!

The edited story will appear in a later post.





The power of storytelling

Bushman story telling

The power of storytelling

(click on title to view)

This poster  demonstrates, in a  very simple form,  some of the practical applications which I cover. Exploring ways to support children to create their own  written and illustrated story is really almost another session, but inevitably each workshop touches on all the various aspects and is, in any case,  designed to meet your specific needs. Some centres really want to learn more about the theoretical justifications for oral storytelling and others want to dive straight into the practice and have a go at being a storyteller.


King Solomon and the Baby.

Well, the interesting thing is that even though I have scrolled through google and youtube I have never found the slightly adapted version of King Solomon and the Baby, which inspired me so much when I was a teacher at the Steiner school. I was only a relieving teacher at the time and was new to much of Waldorf philosophy. There were some powerful young 9 year old girls in the class, and the Main Lesson of the time was the Old Testament and most of the curriculum  material was linked to various stories from that volume. The reasoning, as I understand it, is that the Steiner school curriculum follows the natural cycle of a child’s development , which not illogically follows mankind’s own evolution.

William Harrer says: It is a well-known fact that fairy tales have their origin in the period of humanity’s own childhood, in far-distant times when people lived in a naive dreamlike state of soul, before the unfolding of intellectual capacities. According to the principles of biogenetic law, children pass briefly through the different stages of mankind’s evolution. Children between the ages of four and eight correspond approximately in their development with that period of humanity’s childhood in which fairy tales originated. An unspoiled child absorbs fairy tales during this period of its life, with an eagerness similar to the hunger and intensity with which a baby absorbs its mother’s milk.

This  may sound far fetched but it makes sense to me. Class Two works with Main Lessons that match their soul mood: Fables, Lives of the Saints, The King of Ireland’s Son. The Steiner school in Hastings describes the eight year old’s experience of life thusTheir development is moving towards self identity and encompasses a growing awareness of others as different identities with their own needs and abilities. The world as it affects them is still the basis of the children’s primary social response. The eight year olds are now in the final stages of imitation; they will still be influenced by others actions however and adults must continue to be worthy role‑models and to set the standards for all social interactions. The will is still predominant and the healthy eight‑year‑old will wish to act out all experiences. The children wish to please those they love and to know the world as a good and beautiful piece and they implicitly trust that adults know what is right and good for them.

This is all a preamble for me to get to the story I want to share with you. I took over this class of children when they were in Class Three and turning nine. This is the ‘year of the Rubicon’ for many children, with a dawning awareness that they are separate individuals, that their mother cannot read their mind, that death happens, and that the world is bigger and scarier than they used to think. Metaphorically, it is a time when they begin to be cast out of the Garden of Eden, or childhood, and fittingly, the Main Lesson stories are taken from the Old Testament. My understanding is that children at this age are nourished by stories which tell them that the adults around them, their teachers and parents, are aware of all that is happening and are making wise decisions so that the child feels ‘held’ as they go through the ‘nine year old crisis’. It is  a bit reassuring to hear a story about Jehovah who is so damned sure of  himself. ‘And God said… and that settled it! And Mum said, …and that settled it’. By the following year, Class Four , the whole picture changes and a completely different set of stories form the backbone of the year’s Main Lessons. Such an interesting curriculum and so spot on the way it mirrored the needs, development and evolution  of the children. I prefer it to the fairly random way the mainstream curriculum is decided upon: Oh, let’s do Hitler or pollution,…. oh wait , we haven’t done outer space yet…….what about a bit of…..?

In Class Three ‘The children will question those things that previously went unquestioned: “Who are you to tell me?”, “What is my real name?”, “Am I adopted?” They will push boundaries, venture forth fearlessly when you wish they wouldn’t and shrivel up fearfully where once they were confident. With the ninth year there comes an important stage in the development of the growing child, and this should be carefully watched and considered in teaching and education. It is the age when the child first really feels separate from the surroundings, which formerly were taken so much for granted. Self-consciousness becomes noticeably stronger and the soul‑life more inward and independent’. See this link for more.

So we arrive at my story about a story. Finally. Well, it was a tricky day and I was new and nervous. A fight broke out between two factions in the classroom and weapons (one candlestick holder and one flute!) were drawn and things rapidly spiralled down into a situation which requirement some form of action. Disciplinary consequences? deciding who was righter and who was wronger? Calling in the parents and having a class meeting? Was I competent to teach this class ? (‘This age makes great claims on the wisdom and tact of the teacher’ says the article above. Too right it does).

I was in a quandary and very stressed and unsure how to proceed. The whole class (and the parents)  felt divided and fractious and vulnerable. I spoke to an experienced colleague who calmly suggested that since the Old Testament was full of stories which were soul food for this particular age, I should see if I knew a story which might fit this situation and address it through the metaphor of a story. I felt as though I knew NO stories from the Old Testament. Well, only apparently unhelpful ones like Davis and Goliath, Samson and Delilah or Daniel in the Lion’s Den ( which in some ways was a very appropriate story!)

My friend reassured me that if I ‘asked the angels’ ( I now would translate that into ‘trust my intuition and my own deeper wisdom’) before I went to sleep, I would probably find one. How hard it is to trust one’s higher self and not want to Google and research and look up ‘the right answer’! … by all means , jog one’s memory but then to be quiet and to trust the process.

Sure enough, I woke ecstatic because I realised that I DID know a story and that it was the perfect story. The extraordinary thing , however , was that it was me, rather than the children,  who most needed to hear the story. The metaphor of the story was so meaningful and it resolved so much of the apparent complexity of the situation, that I went up to school in my best clothes and I would have taken a cake if I could have because, rather than feeling as though I was walking into a potential snake pit, I felt as though I was going to a party.

I was at peace with  myself, with what had happened and with what I would do next.

I did not tell the story in the morning, I did  not refer to the incident, but in my very centre I was clear as a bell. Curiously, with the admonishing finger of authority apparently not about to manifest and complicate things, the children actually sent little notes to each other during the Main Lesson, saying sorry to each other. Things pretty much went back to normal and I believe it was because I, as a conscious adult in the room, was carrying a sense of resolution, thanks to the story,  even though I said nothing . In the afternoon, I finally told the story, and this is how my version went. (I am not sure where I found it because all the ones online have based it on the original which attributes the death of one baby to the fact that its mother rolled onto it at  night and then substituted the babies so as to still have one. A bit short.)

My version described two mothers who had children and loved them. In my version there was no mention that they were prostitutes. As their babies grew a little older, one started to ail and eventually died. The mother was heartbroken and in pity , the second mother allowed her sometimes to care for her infant. And so a friendship developed and sometimes the other mother would bathe the child, or walk the child or rock her to sleep. And so on and so forth.  However, as time went by the bereaved mother became so attached to the child that she started to say that it was actually hers and refused to return the child. I probably spun out the scenario and the feelings and the situations until eventually it was a sort of village crisis with everyone arguing, and no one able to sort it out. Finally, a wise older woman suggested ( it was probably a bloke when I told it… it is very hard to resist the impulse to sideline women!! I challenge you to notice if you do this.?) that they take the child to King Solomon as he was also very wise and ask him to sort it out. The childless woman had really begun to believe her own story and so they went. After  hearing from them both, Solomon said that the solution was simple and called for his sword. Raising it above his head, he announced that he intended to cut the baby in two and then they could both have half! The true mother immediately cried out, ‘ No,no. The baby is hers. Give the baby to her!” and then Solomon lowered his sword and gave the child to its real mother because then he knew the truth.

The children listened without interruption and we ended our day by shaking hands as each child left the room. What was particularly memorable and special was that the one girl who was a key ringleader and possibly provocateur numero uno of the whole debacle, stopped at the door, to share with me her vehement indignation  at how bad that second mother had been. The story had done its work. And I was in a state of awe.

This was really my first introduction to the power of story as a healing tool. And I still  marvel at the way the images, the metaphor, the parallel just addressed the whole of the situation in a way that logic and reason and a lecture could  never have begun to achieve. We could  have had a class meeting and dished out consequences but it would have meant splitting the baby, (our little class community) in two. It was not the right way.


The article below addresses the same idea of stories offering alternative  healing potential for parents struggling with difficult issues with their children :

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.