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Word playing

Tom Deveson visits a school where drama liberates children's imaginations

"You bend your fingers into claws and glide with your wings," says Remi. "Your body feels like you're really an owl," adds Anastasia.

Ashley comments: "It feels like an owl in your thoughts." These six-year-olds at Yardley School in Waltham Forest are not only describing the practice of classroom drama, they are pointing towards one of its inestimable benefits.

Children who regularly become other beings in their imagination find that language is not merely a means of recording neutral facts, but a way - the essential and defining human way - of finding meaning within our experience.

Anita Bass, Year 1 class teacher at Yardley, passionately believes in the value of drama. "It's not just leaping about with swords and shields and costumes. It's something you can do sitting on a carpet and with your hands only."

Young children have a natural capacity for making the simple shift that enables them to consider the world from a different viewpoint and then to explore it with a sense of security within their newly borrowed role.

"But many children come to school without enough tactile experience. TV and PlayStations aren't the same as playing families and making sand-cakes."

Anita Bass encourages all her colleagues to give children opportunities the literacy hour doesn't offer: "Let them paddle in language."

Maureen Chadwick, a Year 2 teacher, enthusiastically agrees. She also involves her class with owls, with the children reading a number of books, including Owl Babies and Fly by Night. They discuss words that interest them, such as "talons", or refine their descriptions through talk, so that "yellow eyes with black pupils" enters the class's phraseology.

They then sit in a circle, with a stuffed owl in the centre. They use an idea from a key stage 1 writing task, but instead of writing to score marks or reach levels, they join in collaborative talk.

"Close your eyes for a minute," says Maureen Chadwick, "and then you'll be Blink from Fly by Night. Tell us what you see as you make your first flight over the town."

The results are wonderfully vivid. "I can see little houses like mice," says one child, forging a new and relevant simile. "I can see twisting roads like snakes," another adds, "and shadows moving in the dark."

One boy waits before speaking: "I can see my crinkly reflection." This is a diffident child, unsure of speaking in class, yet he unconsciously echoes the superb epithet that Tennyson used in his poem about an eagle: "the wrinkled sea." Both Victorian Laureate and Chingford seven-year-old become a bird of prey, poised above moving water, and find uniquely apt words to describe what they "saw".

Drama fits into the day at Yardley in many other ways. A popular activity, also seen on the TV programme Whose Line is It Anyway?, is for children to mould each other into still pictures, treating the human body like clay that can become a troll or a snowman. This involves close attention to shape and spatial relationships, and throws up unpredictably intriguing pieces of vocabulary.

Teachers can easily play stimulating dramatic roles. Maureen Chadwick uses a loveable but rather silly dog puppet called Scruffy - bought in a charity shop for a few pounds but worth hundreds for his skill as a motivator - who often needs to have simple literacy or numeracy ideas explained to him.

Anita Bass might become a gardener who can't get her seeds to grow. Every child, even the least voluble, can then be an expert with a bit of advice to tender.

Shirley Day is the school's English co-ordinator. "Drama ignites children's enthusiasm for writing," she says ardently. "They want to write about what they have shared, and they can then go on to assimilate other experiences."

She describes the value of hot-seating in KS2 classes, with one child taking on the role of a book character and answering a series of improvised questions from the others. "Teachers can't determine how the activity will develop and children themselves begin to shape their own understanding of a book."

She uses a parallel technique for exploring the structure of a scientific topic. "If children enact pollination in flowers or the movements of the solar system, they have to think about the order and the inter-relationships of complex processes. This helps enormously when they come to write them down."

Yardley is a beacon school, with literacy and development of writing among its cited areas of expertise. It's not hard to see why. Maureen Chadwick's class begins to write letters from Blink to his cousin, and the expression "my crinkly reflection" appears on the page of the boy who minted it. Like a more famous Londoner who developed his writing through drama 400 years ago, he's learned that "good phrases are surely, and ever were, very commendable".

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