Sean Coughlan observes how acting out their own stories helps young children explore life and learn to communicate
Young children cannot resist stories. There is something about the weaving together of characters and events that they find utterly compulsive, making sense and making fun of the outsized world around them. Tapping into this is a theatre group, the London Bubble, which is taking a storytelling drama project into nursery schools and evoking the kind of spontaneous enthusiasm that adult performers often only dream about.
The project has been inspired by the work of Vivian Gussin Paley, author and pioneer in early years education in the United States, who has developed a technique for recording and then performing children's stories in a way that is intended to allow children to express themselves directly and with as little adult intervention as possible.
At Kintore Way nursery school in Bermondsey, south London, this theory is being put into practice with a class of three and four-year-olds, who line up to tell their stories to Trisha Lee, the London Bubble's participatory projects director. Their stories are written down exactly as they are spoken, without any prompting for subject matter or tidying up of grammar, so that the "script" for plays based on these stories will be precisely as imagined and delivered by the child.
So Sam's account of a Thunderbirds craft crash-landing is rendered: "And then the fire comed off and it started going down down... but it was a little bit still up" and Colby's story says: "he fall in the water and he's dead... and then the crocodile eat him and shoot all the mans up."
The approach is intended to convey the children's intentions in the least-altered form pos-sible, respecting the validity of this infant-speak, rather than imposing a "what you meant to say was..." adult translation. "Once you begin to make changes, where would you stop? And if you rewrote the stories, it would defeat the whole purpose of the exercise," says Trisha Lee. It would be easy enough to polish up the language and impose a "proper" structure on stories, she says, but this would create a reflection of the teachers' perceptions.
"It's about letting children speak for themselves and finding ways of not hampering creativity. There's poetry in their language and we don't want to block it by stopping them every time they try to say something," she says.
In this unfettered expression, Vivian Gussin Paley believes, adults can glimpse how children's minds work. She wrote: "We are in a privileged position of hearing what thinking is like in a child's head. Once I got the hang of keeping track of all of this thinking I was eager for more. I gave the children additional playtime so I could have more listening time. It seemed to me that all the secrets of the universe were being revealed to me, in the manner of the philosophers, linguists and dramatists."
The stories on offer at Kintore Way are a lucky dip bag of impressions. There are television-inspired stories of spaceships and robots and there are glimpses of home life: "My mum cooked and my dad watched telly." There are respun versions of fairy tales: "the princess is sleeping-waking, sleeping-waking, sleeping-waking" - and a surreal blend of the real and imagined, such as being eaten by lions on the way to Tesco.
Anthropologists studying the spreading of ideas would b intrigued by the way children absorb and reinterpret elements of each other's stories. For example, a lion now appears in a number of stories, after appearing for the first time in a single story told in an earlier session. If you were feeling pretentious you could almost see this as developing into a sub-cultural motif specific to the school.
Once the stories are gathered, the second stage of the session is to present the stories on a makeshift stage, a space marked out in blue insulation tape on the classroom floor. With the class gathered around the stage, the teacher reads back the story, while the child-author acts out a character from it. Other characters or objects are acted out by the other pupils, chosen in rotation from the class, pretending to be rockets, trees, crocodiles.
With little hesitation the pupils accept these theatrical conventions, observing the stage, switching between roles of audience and performers, absorbed by the instant stories and clearly enjoying the DIY playmaking.
Deputy head Davina Adebowale commends the project for promoting self-confidence in the children and for improving their ability to communicate. She says it can be an outlet for children wanting to raise anything that is troubling them.
The London Bubble group calls this activity the Helicopter project, from Vivian Gussin Paley's book, The Boy Who Would Be A Helicopter. Although her work is their starting point rather than a rule book, the London Bubble wants this project to help her ideas gain a wider audience in Britain.
Vivian Gussin Paley, now aged 72, developed the ideas from her experience as a kindergarten teacher at University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, an institution founded to pioneer progressive education. In a series of books and essays, she stresses the importance of storytelling as part of the psychological well-being of children. Stories are a kind of instinctive therapy: the telling, listening to and retelling of them maps out relationships with family and the wider community.
She sees stories as a key element of how ideas and ethics are exchanged - and it is only a small step further to say that whole cultures and civilisations are passed on through stories, whether it is literature, soap opera or the Bible. She also believes stories appeal to instincts deeply rooted within human identity. In an essay called Story and Play, the Original Learning Tools, she described how this attachment to stories could be a matter of life and death within societies that were still oral cultures: "When a member of the Bushmen tribe is separated from his community, he says he has died. Why does he say he has died? Because he explains he has not heard the stories told during his absence. This is akin to death. Even when he returns, finally, part of him has died."
For these children in a Bermondsey nursery, storytelling has been one way of bringing an afternoon to life.
London Bubble in-service training days on the Helicopter project, tel: 0207 237 4434.
University of Chicago Laboratory Schools www.ucls.uchicago.edu
Project from Vivian Gussin Paley's kindergarten
www.ucls.uchicago.eduprojects1997-98PhototechnologyFall972424.html 'STORY AND PLAY: The Original Learning Tools', by Vivian Gussin Paley www.script.