Thinking outside the box
"Wot the flippin' 'eck is a splox box?" asked a bemused voice near my feet. Eager faces looked up at me, eyes flitting to the large pink and red box on my right.
It was Monday morning - a time when I always like to introduce something new. But a splox box? Well, that was something different altogether.
I have enormous concerns about children's declining social skills. Despite having set clear and realistic expectations in terms of manners, co-operation and social discourse with their peers, I still recoil in horror at their growing inability to: (a) articulate their needs clearly; (b) consider the needs of others, and (c) listen to each other in order to achieve (a) and (b). "Instant gratification" my husband calls it: too much achieved at the press of a thumb at a games console.
So I decided a splox box would help. Actually, it is a SPLox box. The first three letters represent attainment target 1 of the national curriculum for English: speaking and listening.
My SPLox box is a large self-assembly box from Ikea, which happens to have eyes and - this is the exciting bit - the hand space for picking up the box is in the shape of a mouth. Perfect. Teachers are easily pleased and this find was the highlight of my Easter holiday.
I set about filling my SPLox box with small boxes and pouches of items to stimulate, develop and extend the skills pertaining to (a), (b) and (c).
Rummaging around pound shops and old cupboards, keeping an eye open for any appropriate bargain, soon became the focus of my life.
Back with my Year 4 class, I introduced them to each of the boxes and their inhabitants. These included colourful, yet menacing plastic spiders; magnetic Superhero figures; Captain Nemo characters; and cute dolls with string legs.
The children's eyes grew wider as I opened each box. "We could make up stories with them," suggested a child, who by now was actually sitting on my foot. "We could talk as if they were talking."
"How about making up little plays and everyone having their own part?"
One item that couldn't fit in the box was a finger-puppet theatre, complete with curtains and a stage. I recently acquired a second "theatre" in the guise of a castle with a drawbridge, knight, princess, king and jester to stimulate all sorts of fantastic conflicts.
The plays and stories that flow from the SPLox box need teamwork, consideration and negotiation. The box isn't a golden-time activity or a time-filler. It's a timetabled part of children's learning. It's a time when they make their own choices of peer group and adventure; when they listen to each other and consider the needs of everyone in their group:
"Well if we don't, we won't be able to follow the action or decide what happens next in the story," they tell me, as if I'm five minutes short of a literacy hour. It's a time when inhibitions are lost and even the most timid children produce amazing dialects or monstrous expressions. It's a time that continues to amaze me.
Yes, it took a little effort to accumulate the contents and yes, the pens for the magnetic board have dried up quickly and I can't find replacements easily. No, they do not have to record their ideas or formally commit their adventures to paper. This is simply about (a), (b) and (c), which, as we know, provide the crucial foundation to support more formal literacy skills.
Della Williams is deputy headteacher of Churchfields Primary School, Bromley