Heads full of tales

20th June 2003 at 01:00
DISCOVER. 12 Bridge Terrace, London E15 4BG

Dressing-up, goody bags and an alien called Hootah encourage everyone to join in at a new centre for storytelling. Victoria Neumark joins the party

In an old council building in Stratford, east London, infant school children from Islington are sitting, rapt, in front of Daisy. Daisy is a storybuilder in a purple shirt and she and the children are fizzing with excitement. "Show me your spoon puppets," she urges, and 30 hands wave plastic spoons decorated with feathers, pipe cleaners, clothes pegs, coloured paper and sequins.

"Does everybody like stories?" she asks - a question that brings to mind well-worn comments about bears in woods or the Pope and Catholicism. Of course children like stories. More importantly, though, stories are meat and drink to children: nourishing them, making them grow, giving them new ways to perceive and shape the world. Not that this is obvious to the six-year-olds from Robert Blair school as they race off into the glittering halls and secret spaces of Discover, a museum for children aged two to seven, and their accompanying adults, which opens on June 28.

The children are heading for a series of exhibits aimed at stimulating stories and storytelling, writing skills, reading, speaking and listening.

The Lollipopter, a kind of all-purpose silver machine for travelling on earth, air or sea, comes with boarding cards to fill in; the Magic Parcel, a split-level structure that incorporates a home corner and an ethnic puppet theatre, offers postcards; the Secret Cave houses a speaking tube to call in or out, with baskets of storybooks enticingly arranged next to drawing paper, while big storyboards made of touch-sensitive polymers with special crayons and big sheets of pull-down white paper offer the chance to write collaborative tales. Hand puppets, dressing-up, a rickety-rackety bridge over a sparkly, crocodile-infested river and a giant footprint from which to reassess perspectives on the world are all greeted with screams of delight.

Adults have to join in. Tails or headdresses are de rigueur, jumping on the sound-emitting footprints optional, but contributing to each session's beginning, midway and final briefing is crucial to Discover's mission, which is to help children and their families, carers and teachers "explore and savour the value of stories and the blocks on which they are built: words, language and imagination".

"Play, performance and storytelling" for visitors are seamlessly linked, so the wonderful outdoor play equipment in the Discover garden and the push-button table of ethnic nursery rhymes, the goody bag of story folder and paper puppet each visitor takes away and, above all, the constant interaction with the talented, inventive storybuilders, blend together into an invigorating two-and-a-half hours. For this, the fee is pound;2.50 per person (reductions for school parties, which must be pre-booked).

Discover has been five years in the growing - rather like some of its visitors. A series of forums, involving 55 local children aged two to 13 recruited from community centres, schools and playgroups, have been involved every step of the way. It was their idea to invent the character of Hootah, an alien from a planet where people literally feed on stories, who has come to Discover on a mission. His people face extinction after consuming all the stories on their planet.

Visitors to Discover have to create ever more stories for Hootah to scoop up through his alien tentacles. The story-hoods to be found all over the museum (actually recording booths) offer each child a chance to record a beginning, middle and end to their own stories, which Hootah can then send home. Adults on the Discover project are initially wary of the Hootah notion, but children love it, says Peter Eatherley, director of the centre until September. A life-size figure of Hootah graces the entrance, and images of him decorate the bookbags.

Watching the children as they scamper about then pause, dart to a piece of paper and start rapidly sketching or writing, calls to mind a quotation from Vivian Gussin Paley, doyenne of storymaking with young children. "What is this miraculous event going on? The children are not surprised. Nothing surprises or confuses them that takes place during play or story time. They expect to understand. Play is their language and story is their second language. Or is it the other way around? It matters not." (From a lecture in Luxembourg, 1997.) Peter Eatherley says: "The exhibits are just bases to stimulate play."

Designed by Vicky Cave, who also designed Eureka! in Halifax, the exhibits are high-tech and shiny, but the activities they inspire, whether a dolls' tea party, a pirate look-out, a puppet play or lots of people setting off on a voyage, are well-nigh timeless. At the midway briefing, our storybuilder asks: "Did anyone make a story?" Hands shoot up, but then children are overcome with shyness. "Let's hear Sharon's story. She wrote it on a butterfly. It began with a man who went, Nernernerner (ambulance-type siren). Everyone go nernernerner." Everyone does. "What happened then?" "That was the end."

Gamely, one of the teachers joins in. "We made a story about a cat that's gone missing, and a crocodile that ate the butterfly." The children look at her quietly. "Now," explains a storybuilder, "we're going to make stories together. Can we do sharing?" The children chorus, "Yes", and cluster together. One small girl picks up a mermaid finger puppet and places it carefully on the throne, which is much too big for her. It looks like a story already.

No less a writer than Shakespeare, in the poem The Passionate Pilgrim, talks of "stories to delight his ear". The oral tradition that underlies so much writing has been imperilled by the atomising effect of television which, as A S Byatt has remarked, satisfies our hunger for narrative but fails to stimulate our ability to make it for ourselves.

Discover's 10 storybuilders and 50 local volunteers are "the key", says Nina Sprigge, head of schools liaison. "Some children," she explains, "don't often have adults paying attention to them, let alone working with them on their terms. It's important that the adults play with the children."

Discover can accommodate four school groups of 30 a day, four days a week during term-time. At weekends and holidays, it is open for family groups, and workers have also decided to stay open on Christmas Day, which may be less well celebrated in the local area, home to more than 100 migrant groups. People from more traditional societies are often in touch with oral traditions of storytelling but not yet comfortable in English: volunteers from such societies can bridge that gap and help visitors from non-European countries feel at home in its vivid home for stories.

These aspects have been tested with an outreach programme that has been shared with 17,000 children over the past two-and-a-half years. As Peter Eatherley says: "If we hadn't done, we'd be up a gum tree."

Storybuilders have learned the importance of repetition, of testing the water with briefings, of sending children home with tangible souvenirs as well as memories - hence the bookbags. They have also sharply honed their practice to fit in with national curriculum goals for early learning, foundation and literacy for key stage 1. Teachers will be offered Inset, the chance of pre-visits and development activities in a resource pack to follow on from visits.

Before the museum has even opened, school visits are booked up until October. "It's great," says Nina Sprigge. "We know there's a need, we've researched it and we can meet it."

As Vivian Gussin Paley put it: "Play and story take us where we want to go.

Hop aboard. It's the pleasantest trip anyone can invent and will instruct us well for the rest of our lives."

For more information: www.discover.org.uk, or tel: 020 8536 5555. Open every day from 10am to 5pm, except Mondays during term-time. Admission pound;2.50.You Can't SayYou Can't Play, Vivian Gussin Paley (Harvard)

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