Carolyn O'Grady watches an arts-and-theatre workshop turn five-year-olds into pirates for the day
A huge cardboard pirate ship is taking shape in the middle of the school hall complete with masts, rudder and skull-and-crossbones, to the sounds of children singing "What shall we do with the drunken sailor?" and "Jamaica Town".
Elsewhere, groups of five and six-year-olds are putting together a desert island with palm trees and a chest overflowing with treasure. Others are making eye patches, pirate hats and telescopes.
It is towards the end of the summer term at TrinityC of E Infant School in Wolverhampton, and the children are taking part in a day-long event with Real Arts Workshops, a collective of young Wolverhampton-based artists and teachers that started working with schools in March. The group, which includes specialists in music, graphic design and drama, tailors its workshops to each school's needs. Teachers are encouraged to participate as well.
"The emphasis is on realising the potential of the imagination rather than producing technical masterpieces, and on the experience being fun. If you enjoy something you want to do it more," says Alex Vann, a graphic artist and the group's co-ordinator.
Trinity School chose the theme and requested the huge pirate ship, because, as head Sally Marple says, Year 1 pupils were very excited by their work on "the sea" that term. This interest is evident: sea motifs decorate all of the Year 1 classrooms of this attractive inner-city school.
Large cardboard structures are Real Arts' speciality, though storytelling, drama and music also play important parts. At another school the group built a huge pyramid. One of Real Arts' favourite projects, Joseph, the Cardboard Box, features a girl who finds a lonely box and imagines what it might be: a robot, a car, a castle or a sledge.
The team of four begins its visit to Trinity School with a much-shortened version of Treasure Island illustrated by overhead transparencies showing Long John Silver, the treasure chest and Jim, the cabin boy. Pupils are encouraged to act out climbing the rigging, rowing the boat and scanning the sea for land.
Next, split into four groups, they are sent to the four points of the compass for different activities. One group sets about cutting cardboard and sticking the pieces together to make the huge pirate ship. The children work with zeal: Alex Vann has a knack of involving lively pupils in the real business of construction, not just fetching and carrying.
Meanwhile, other groups start making an island out of cardboard, while others work on props: pirate hats, compasses, eye-patches, treasure, including gold coins and necklaces, and (of course) parrots.
Each task is preceded by discussion - on what the children might find on and around a desert island, on the plumage of parrots, on the pirates' attire and equipment.
The parrots are cut out of paper and stuck on to cardboard, and the children are asked tofasten pieces of Blu-Tack on them so that they balance on their fingers. Jennie Turner, a former primary school teacher and lecturer in literature and drama, hasn't tried this exercise with such young children before, but is pleased with the results: quite a few of them succeed without help.
Throughout the day the groups move round to different activities until the island is ready for occupation, the boat is finished - complete with a skull-and-crossbones flag - and each child has at least one item of pirate gear.
Next comes a treasure hunt in which the children in their groups follow clues that lead to a sign telling them they have found the treasure. Each group then receives a bundle of goodies.
Finally, there is a presentation to the rest of the school. The children wear their pirate hats and eye patches and carry their telescopes and other paraphernalia. Some play the parts of characters while Jennie Turner reads the story again, accompanied by transparencies. The rest illustrate the story with actions such as rocking with the storm-driven boat or rowing when it is becalmed. Woven into the story is a scene in which the pirates train their parrots to sit on their fingers. Some fall off, while others (with the help of a ball of Blu-Tack) stay neatlybalanced.
It has been a satisfying day. The children are excited, and Sally Marple is pleased with the results. "It has been a very good finale to the children's work this term about the sea", she says. "And pitched at the right level. "
Real Arts Workshop's rates are: Pounds 120 for a full day with two members of the workshop; Pounds 160 with three members; Pounds 190 with four. The workshop will also do half days. Apart from standard items like scissors and pencils the group brings their own materials. Real Arts Workshop, The Flat, 44 Belvedere Gardens, Wolverhampton WV6 9QL. Telfax: 01902 744445