Please can I be Mr Gumpy?
Who as a child hasn't wanted to be a character from a book? To move into an exciting world and live the adventures of the hero?
Thanks to visiting drama specialist in children's arts Pam Wardell, children at a Montessori nursery in Morningside, Edinburgh are given this opportunity every week.
They listen intently as Pam reads to them in a style reminiscent of the days of Jackanory. Mr Gumpy and his animal friends come alive as Pam flaps her arms, makes the appropriate animal noises and uses her voice to get them excited. With plenty of interruptions - "I have a dog", "I don't have a pet yet" - they are clearly engrossed in the story, and the simple repetitive dialogue allows them to join in.
But the excitement does not finish at the end of the story; it has hardly begun. The children now begin to act out the story, and Pam asks who wants to be Mr Gumpy. "Usually everyone wants to be everything," she says, "but this group has had quite a few sessions with me, so they are getting used to having to choose. It teaches them about taking turns and social skills."
The children act out the story, with Mr Gumpy donning a tweed hat and a long cardboard tube as a walking stick. "Can I get in your boat Mr Gumpy?" asks the rabbit and, given the nod, the next child jumps in.
It is obvious they have been listening intently as little prompting is required. They are all allowed in, but it is not long before the boat crashes, to the sound of a tambourine, and the children swim to shore. Once safe, they go to tea, with the tambourine now the table, and each child offering a different type cake, to be eaten with their cup of tea.
"With this age group, it is about understanding the shape of the story, the drama of it, and the dialogue," says Pam. "It is about using language in imaginative situations. For young children, it is natural for them to be what they are reading about. I just motivate them."
As a trained speech and drama specialist, Pam is aware of the big part books and drama can play in developing language skills at this stage. "The children develop communication skills and are introduced to a wealth of language. It is natural to play things out and to explore the whole story. It is about communication in action. We can see what they make of the story."
She finds it easy to adapt the sessions to meet the children's needs. Those with speech and language difficulties or English as a second language benefit from more emphasis on certain words to aid them.
"They benefit from listening to the richness of the language and the sounds, from being surrounded not just by noise but by focus. It is about developing speech in a safe situation and contributing what they can," says nursery manager Emma Wardell, Pam's daughter.
The setting up of Pam's company, Books Alive, came after a long career as a BBC Radio producer, during which she learned many of her skills. "I have my own library of books as well as musical instruments. A lot of the books are based on sound effects, bringing out my skills as a radio producer. I also have CDs of sound effects. It's about getting them to respond."
Emma agrees. "We have found that every child, even the shyest, comes out of themselves", she says. "All the sessions are full of lots of movement. The children start to understand the sequence of a story and gain more insight into stories they read. Breaking down the stories helps them identify the different parts of the story and how they are made up."
The nursery is keen to have drama as part of its curriculum, rather than an add-on. "We recognise that children exist for the moment," explains Emma. "Staging a performance is not always relevant to younger children. We want them to enjoy performing for the sake of doing it, not for the parent paparazzi. Drama is great for finding a child's centre, for their social and emotional needs and they get a lot of joy from being part of a group and working with a focus."
Pam Wardell will hold a seminar on Bringing Books Alive at the Creative Sparks conference, in Edinburgh, run by the Scottish Book Trust and sponsored by The TESS, on February 27.