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Flights of the imagination

A pilot project has shown that even the most withdrawn pupils can take centre stage. Reve Klein reports

Jurell, aged four, sits on a big cushion next to Robert, aged 20-something, who is creating a "stage" by delineating a big rectangle with masking tape. "Look, Robert, it's magic time!" say the children at the nursery school in Bermondsey, south London.

They are sitting around the stage in a big circle, tapping somewhat manically on the tape until Jurell commands their attention by holding up a piece of paper covered with grown-up writing.

This is his story, transcribed by a teacher, which is first "read" aloud by him and then acted out by some of the other children. It may be a bit weak on plot and characterisation, but Jurell is clearly delighted as he retells his brutal, not to say anarchic tale: "There was three cat and three dog. The cat chases the dog and the dog mashes up the house and two little boys they chase after the cats."

Robert chooses the cast from the seated children - all of them dying to be a cat or a boy or a dog or even, at a pinch, a mashed-up house. He then directs them in their roles as Jurell goes through the story again. For those with no roles, there are sound effects, such as "miaooowwww" and "woooofff" to keep them happy. But the best thing of all is seeing Jurell watch his story come to life - albeit chaotically. At first shy and mumbling, he visibly blossoms as the enormity of it all gradually dawns on him. This is his story and it's been made into a play, and everyone's watching.

What Jurell and his raggle-taggle company of actors don't know is that they're part of a pilot project, helping to develop a model for working with children.

In Chicago, early-years educationalist Vivian Gussin Paley devised this methodology of encouraging children to "write" stories for other children to enact. It uses storytelling and drama, enabling children to work through their feelings, problems and conflicts by using their powers of imagination. It also gives others an opportunity to engage with them and is a cracking good way to boost speaking and listening skills.

The London Bubble Theatre Company, of which Robert is a member, has adopted this methodology, using it in a pilot project in three primary schools, a nursery school and an early years centre, all in an education action zone in Southwark, South London. The Bubble has called it the Helicopter Project.

What, you're asking yourself, does Jurell's mashed-up house and dogs, and cats and boys have to do with helicopters? Well, Vivian once taught a little boy called Jason, who thought he was a helicopter and whose waking hours, including playtimes, were completely fixated on helicopters. He acted like a helicopter, made noises like one, pretended to fix them and tinkered with them constantly. He rarely spoke to anyone and wouldn't participate in games or play, apart from his own helicopterish activities. As Vivian Paley documented in her book, The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter, Jason was withdrawn and would get upset easily, but was happy when he was being a helicopter or playing with one, or even pretending to play with one.

Through her observations of Jason, Vivian came to the conclusion that, by sharing his imaginative world with others through stories, they would understand him better and be able to engage with him, and vice versa. So she set about painstakingly transcribing stories that he would tell her and then, in a formal setting, the other children would act them out The effect was as she had expected. By acting through Jason's stories, they entered his imaginative world and came to understand and accept him. And, in the process, he found that the barriers were broken down, as he was able to move between his world and theirs with increasing fluidity. They'd invite him to bring his helicopter into their own play worlds. On more than one occasion he saved the day, rescuing people from flaming buildings or whatever scenarios their playing conjured up. It drew him into the social world that he had been excluded from before.

For Trisha Lee, the project co-ordinator, the pilot has been a journey of discovery.

When she first read Vivian's book, she was "immediately struck with the use of drama and storytelling in a way that felt inclusive, because it was coming from the voices of the children". But getting the balance right, between encouraging the children to tell their stories and controlling the activity, has been a challenge. "I've had a few conversations on the phone with Vivian when I've said, 'I don't know how to do this'. One thing she's said that's been really helpful is, 'see yourself as facilitating the child's story. Help them bring out their story'. That made me realise that I've probably been intervening too much, that I needed to step back. She's keen for us to take the technique on for ourselves." Which they have.

The project continued in the autumn with a term's residency at a Beacon school in Brockley, Lewisham, where the Bubble team handed on the Helicopter Project method to teachers. Whereas on their first visit the team worked with just one class, when they return in the spring they will work with the whole school.

In addition, they will be running in-service days for other interested teachers and, on March 22, there will be a conference on storytelling and the early years, The Drama of Children at the British Library Conference Centre in London, during which Vivian Gussin Paley will demonstrate her approach. Trisha Lee believes the time is right for Paley's ideas to cross over to Britain: "At a time when drama has been eroded in the curriculum, developing children's creativity through storytelling and play-making is so important."

Teacher notes To follow the "helicopter" approach, teachers should:

I make sure they don't stage-manage the story or the play; guide children if they need it, but don't steer them in a particular direction; I find a natural, unforced way of getting children to tell their stories. Vivian had a story table and the children would come to it with their stories. The Bubble team found that this isn't appropriate to the way they work, so they wander around the class asking individual children to tell stories that emerge from their play; I ensure that children don't choose who acts in their plays.

"If you give children that power, they can abuse it," says Trisha Lee, meaning that there will always be children feeling excluded. Instead, the teacher allocates the roles to children who want to be involved; I ensure that children aren't coerced into story-telling or acting, but that they all come together as an audience to listen to each other's stories.

For details about the Helicopter Project and the Drama of Children Conference on March 22, call the London Bubble Theatre Company on: 0207 237 4434, or e mail The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter:

The Uses of Storytelling in the Classroom by Vivian Gussin Paley, Harvard University Press, pound;6.95

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