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A world inside a box

A box that lures children into storytelling is a wonderful tool for developing language skills, as Elizabeth Simpson reports

"Once upon a time there was a scary jungle. It was scary because it was full of poisonous snakes. Tarzan and a monkey came into the jungle. Tarzan trod on a snake and it bit his leg. 'Aahh', said Tarzan." Reception class children at St William of York School in Lewisham, south east London, are having fun with story boxes, a simple idea available to all teachers, providing a springboard to oral storytelling and supporting many early learning goals.

Today the story is set in the jungle, but next week it might be in the arctic or outer space, at sea or in fairytale land. Story boxes are ordinary boxes, adapted and covered with paper. When the lid is taken off, the front and sides of the box fall down to create a mini proscenium arch stage - a theatre for any theme the teacher wishes to explore.

Class teacher Lindsey Ball asks which backdrop the children would like.

They choose the hunter, and Lindsey places a laminated picture at the back of the stage. By her side she has a selection of toys. Plastic snakes, lions, tigers, monkeys, Tarzan - all wait to be chosen by the children and become part of their story.

"Children love using story boxes", says Lindsey. "They don't even realise they're working. The early learning goals emphasise learning through play so this is a fantastic resource. I like the jungle one. It's mysterious; lots of things can happen in the jungle. It gives the children plenty of scope.

"But you have to be careful that you don't tell the story. All aspects should come from the children. It's the questions that change the nature of the story and the children have to answer those questions themselves."

"So then what happened?" she asks. "Then the monkey put a magic plaster on Tarzan's leg," says Alex. After every few lines, the class repeat the story so far, to reinforce the narrative. "Shall we put someone else in the jungle?" "A tiger," answers Josephine. As the plastic tiger is placed carefully into the box, Lindsey asks what happens next. The children are quick to respond. "A tiger came into the jungle." "When?" "A few minutes later," says Maryum. "Who was he?" "He was a friend of Tarzan and the monkey," answers Humphrey. "What was he doing?" "The tiger was looking for food and he ate all the snakes," says Daniel.

Later, having taken in lots of ideas from the session with the story box, the class moves on to an individual guided storytelling session. They sit in a circle and Lindsey asks one of the children if they would like to tell a story. During each session four or five children will take up the opportunity and over several weeks Lindsey will hear one from every child in her class. She sees this as an excellent way to observe how each child's language is developing.

Today it's Saffron's turn. "Once upon a time there was a tiger and there was a monkey and there was a rhinoceros and a zebra," she says."And what happened?" asks Lindsey. "The tiger bit the zebra." "Why?" "Because the tiger wanted to eat the zebra."

As Lindsey draws the story from Saffron, she writes it down. When it is completed, some of the children are asked to act it out to the class. The children take to the stage enthusiastically and mime Saffron's story, as Lindsey reads it. "When the children first act out their stories in front of the class they often just stand there, but they slowly gain confidence,"

she says.

This sort of individual guided storytelling is one of many activities supporting communication, language and literacy which Lindsey sees as springing from her use of story boxes. Story boxes are, she says, at the centre of a web of learning: "They work with so many of the early learning goals on so many different levels. They can be used in whole class, guided groups or independent work, and their main strength is that they allow children to use their imaginations without having to worry about writing."

They also supported personal, social and emotional development. When children played with the story boxes they learned to share the toys and helped each other. "I have six children in my class who don't speak English at home. With story boxes they learn new words at the same time as the other children. And if they don't understand a word they'll help each other or ask their peers."

When the lid is taken off and the box opens up, a whole new world is created for the children. "Story boxes are fun and exciting. I like moving the toys and telling stories about them," says Saffron. And this resource is wonderfully inexpensive. "You don't need a big budget," says Lindsey.

"You just have to use your imagination."

Left: Humphrey Keeper (left) and Monay Thomas both from St William of York * Helen Bromley, 50 Exciting Ideas for Storyboxes, pound;12

The Magical World and The Natural World storyboxes with teacher's notes are available for pound;30 each fromYellow Door; the two are on special offerfor pound;50

Helen Bromley also provides story box workshops


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