Cat's Cake becomes a cradle of learning

17th March 1995 at 00:00
Cat made a cake. He offered some to six animals. Bear said: "It's very nice, but it'd be even nicer with some honey." Penguin said: "It's very nice, but it'd be even nicer with some fish." Tiger said: "It's very nice, but it'd be even nicer with some meat." Rabbit said: "It's very nice, but it'd be even nicer with some carrots." Monkey said: "It's very nice, but it'd be even nicer with some bananas." Goat said: "It's very nice" - and he ate it all up!

So the next time Cat made a cake all the animals sneaked in their favourite ingredients. Bear poured in some honey, Penguin slipped in a silvery fish, Tiger slammed in the meat, Rabbit stuck in three carrots and Monkey some bananas. And what do you think? When all the animals came to taste Cat's cake they thought it was AWFUL. Except for Goat, who ate it all up . Why? Because Goats eat - ANYTHING!

That's the story - apologies to Richard Fowler, who wrote Cat's Cake - which six children from Class 2 and I acted out to the rest of the class last week. It's got all the ingredients of a good story - strong characters, a firm storyline, repetition and resolution, with a comic twist - and some nice curricular tie-ins with measuring, cooking, natural history (Tiger's relation to his food is a bit more active than Rabbit's, for instance) and language (capital letters for names). It's also got a lot of possibilities for action.

It's commonly asserted that children as young as four or five are not self-conscious but it's not true. Rabbit was in an agony of shyness. He did a beautiful bunny-hop when we were rehearsing, but he couldn't bear to push his bottom (even decently facing away from the audience) up in the air before his class mates. At least, not until I did so as well. Tiger, who had growled and clawed the air with passion in our rehearsals still did so convincingly in the performance, but her cheeks were a bright pink and her growl escaped through teeth clenched with nerves. And Goat, who was very willing, still forgot that his legs were straight.

But some of the children were naturals. Penguin has never acted before yet there she waddles, flapping her arms and honking cheerfully. Bear stomps about, his tummy out and his grin in place. And Monkey, Monkey swung and gibbered and swung some more with cheerful simian licence. What can one conclude from this?

I look up on the wall where the children's drawings of themselves are pinned. There is my Jake's wobbly set of concentric circles and 15 others more or less the same. And there is Alan's incredibly assured pencil drawing of a human being. True, it looks nothing like Alan, but it could easily have been drawn by a 12-year-old. In fact, my 12-year-old couldn't have drawn anything so firmly cursive in its lines, so bold in its use of the space, so precise in its proportions.

What are these talents and aptitudes and abilities? Are they innate or nurtured by the home (though I happen to know that Alan's mother encourages his drawings only by the simple expedient of routinely suggesting he draw and providing the pencils) or developed by the culture (we don't seem to have anyone skilled in origami, for instance)? And how far is this development of abilities maturational?

Some of the children in Class 2 are just beginning to read. They discover words on packets and read them with a kind of shock. "Tesco" they always knew, because it came with some blue and white stripes. But now they also spot the definite article all over the place and in spotting "the" realise too that whatever comes after it is also a word - and can be READ! There are words, as one little girl told me, everywhere. I could see it through her eyes, a whole daunting universe of print, all meaning something or, as I might see it, often meaning quite little.

The classroom, with its words and labels and books and pictures, introduces this world of print directly, but some of the children - the ones who are not learning to read - seem to dodge between the hail of meaning and shake it off. Until, as has recently happened to Jake, they catch a word or a letter in their conceptual net. And there it is: now (brain damage, God forbid, apart) he can never not know "the".

But if learning to read is a skill developed at a maturational point, what about being a penguin? And what about people who stop (without brain damage, God willing) being able to be penguins although they continue reading?

Of course, in my soppy Mumsy way, I want them all to be able to leap about like Monkey and also enjoy reading not only Tesco bags, but maybe even Shakespeare. Or should we just accept that some people are Rabbit and don't want to hop with their bottom in the air?

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