PRAESA’s Storyplay work in the Ububele Story Schools Project takes place in crèches and grade R classrooms. Reading and writing progress among young children happens when they have regular and meaningful explorations with stories. Adults use storybooks as stimuli for encouraging children to think, talk, and play imaginatively. We see how children become engrossed in their learning when they connect to various interesting opportunities to compose, write, draw retell stories and read. All Storyplay activities, over time, contribute towards young children becoming motivated, engaged, creative and critical literacy learners. This contrasts to the way young children are so often expected to give only ‘correct’ answers, which the teacher already knows. If children are reprimanded for giving a ‘wrong’ answer, this can harm self confidence and undermine their motivation to learn. Moreover, so much rote learning stifles the growth of young children’s ability to think creatively and critically.

In Part 1, Nolubabalo Mbotshwa, Storyplay mentor, reflects on a session based on Frederick by Leo Lionni. In Part 2, the same piece is interspersed by reflective comments by Sara Stanley, visiting Storyplay trainer-practitioner, which illuminate the powerful pedagogical value of Storyplay.

Frederick, a poetic little mouse, is part of a “chatty family of field mice”. His brothers and sisters find it hard to understand why he gathers words and colours for winter… until the food starts to run out…

PART 1

Intern, Rehema and I are visiting Teacher E’s class today. We put down our box that we had cut out as for Frederick’s house and we put trails of cut-up paper and trails of seeds leading from Frederick’s house right to the classroom door. When the children come in they can’t believe their eyes and start asking each other what could have come out of the box. They say it was a snake, an invisible ghost, a bird… “I think it’s a mouse and he bumped into everything because there’s papers and seeds everywhere, I think he was looking for a way to get out”… “a duck flying the sky”…“a baby rhino, a very small one, this small”, (showing us how small).

One child, (Child B) gave us a number to give to the mouse next time he is in the class, because “…Last time it was a dragon and they must ask to come to their class”. The number is TMWCY and they must please send a message to this number.

Child T: “You must not give strangers your name or number, you must just wave and carry on walking.”

Child D: “But the mouse isn’t a stranger because he is in our class”.

Child B: “But we haven’t even seen the mouse so he is a stranger’.

They have this discussion amongst themselves. We, as the adults, sit and listen and Teacher E tells me, “It’s so lovely to see them thinking and having discussions and solving their own problems”. I think she might never have seen that with her other classes because she’s always quick to intervene before it gets out of hand.

Child W: “Please can we read the story now”.

Child D: “Yes”.

Rehema reads the story and when she finishes I ask the children “What words did Frederick use in the story or what extraordinary words did Frederick use?”

Child D: “Food. Frederick collected food for his family and friends”.

Child B: “Colours, because “Frederick asked his friends to close their eyes and he sent his friends red, blue, green, yellow for warmth and I think purple”.

Child W: “Supplies, like straws and corn”. says D.

Child D: “Well that’s also like food”

Child W: ” NO!!! it’s not “ (sounding annoyed).

Teacher E: “Chatty. Who is a chatterbox in this class?”

Everyone: “Child D! “

The children point to him and we all have a laugh because we all agree that he is a real chatterbox. Child D doesn’t mind, he is excited and has a huge smile on his face, like he is agreeing with the class. I have had to ask him many times to please let the other children also talk – he just interrupts – and Child B and Child W really get annoyed with him.

I ask the other girls if they have any words and they just shake their heads.

Child D: “Put your hands on your brain and close our eyes and just think quietly of the words that Frederick will say”.

We all close our eyes.

Child D: “Frederick has given me three words, Colours, Warmth and Cauliflower”.

Teacher E, Rehema and myself are trying hard not to laugh because the word Cauliflower is so unexpected. Child D is looking serious and we do not want to ruin his creativity and we think that this is so amazing.

I say, “Cauliflower, that’s interesting”.

Child D: “Yes because my mommy wants me to eat it”.

I tell the children that Rehema and I would be back tomorrow and they must see if they can’t find Frederick in the hall, passage or even outside, because we still don’t know where he has gone to. Child D asks us again to close our eyes and to put our hands on our brain; we all do as we are told.

Child D: “Ok, now let’s quietly stand up and go to the door and stand there and Frederick might come out”.

We all stand up and quietly tiptoe to the door and we stand and wait… but no Frederick. Child L pulls me down as she wants to whisper something in my ear. She tells me she doesn’t think that Frederick is in class. I tell the others what Child L has told me and then Teacher E says they will have to look in the hall.

We finish our session on this note.

PART 2

Intern, Rehema and I are visiting Teacher E’s class today. We put down our box that we had cut out as for Frederick’s house and we put trails of cut-up paper and trails of seeds leading from Frederick’s house right to the classroom door. When the children come in they can’t believe their eyes and start asking each other what could have come out of the box. They say it was a snake, an invisible ghost, a bird… “I think it’s a mouse and he bumped into everything because there’s papers and seeds everywhere, I think he was looking for a way to get out”… “a duck flying the sky”…“a baby rhino, a very small one, this small”, (showing us how small).

We have noticed that the children are comfortable to lead the investigations into the mysterious story starting activities that are an integral part of Storyplay. Authorship begins with ownership of ideas. When the children work collectively to make sense of the stimulus presented we discover that they are able to negotiate, build upon and even disagree with each other giving reasons why. In these reflective notes we are interested in the reasoning behind their answers. At this point the book itself remains deliberately unseen. This is because we have noticed that when children are asked to say what the book might be about their answers remain in the factual realm. This in turn puts pressure on children to produce a “correct” answer, inhibiting those who are unsure of the expected response. Through the discovery of a shared stimulus, in this case, the trail of seeds and paper, the children are not answerable to a teacher as givers of one answer but experts in the many answers they bring from their imaginations. They offer ideas that connect with their known experiences, with the ideas they have seen on TV or in other books and stories they have encountered and with their own fantasy. They are also sharing these ideas with each other rather than directing them to a figure of authority. This type of spontaneous discussion creates a tidal wave of enthusiasm giving children who are less confident at formal class discussion the opportunity to have their voice listened to and their ideas valued.

One child, (Child B) gave us a number to give to the mouse next time he is in the class, because “…Last time it was a dragon and they must ask to come to their class”. The number is TMWCY and they must please send a message to this number.

Child T: “You must not give strangers your name or number, you must just wave and carry on walking.”

Child D: “But the mouse isn’t a stranger because he is in our class”.

Child B: “But we haven’t even seen the mouse so he is a stranger’.

They have this discussion amongst themselves. We, as the adults, sit and listen and Teacher E tells me, “It’s so lovely to see them thinking and having discussions and solving their own problems”. I think she might never have seen that with her other classes because she’s always quick to intervene before it gets out of hand.

Child W: “Please can we read the story now”.

Child D: “Yes”.

The teacher’s comment here is important in the context of Storyplay. We explore her interest in listening to the children. We have found that teachers may be anxious that listening to children is not valued as teaching the curriculum. However, when teachers are given space to listen to the children they are able to assess knowledge and understanding, social and emotional development and use of language and vocabulary in a contextual learning environment. This reveals more of the child than formal assessment allows. Providing opportunities for problem solving makes visible the skills children already have, or – in some cases – may reveal a need for support. In the above example the teacher might identify a confusion between numerals and graphemes and include future provision for developing number skills in the context of the story, for example by encouraging children to record imaginary phone numbers for mouse cell phone calls.

Rehema reads the story and when she finishes I ask the children, “What words did Frederick use in the story or what extraordinary words did Frederick use?”

Child D: “Food. Frederick collected food for his family and friends”.

Child B: “Colours, because “Frederick asked his friends to close their eyes and he sent his friends red, blue, green, yellow for warmth and I think purple”.

Child W: “Supplies, like straws and corn”. says D.

Child D: “Well that’s also like food”

Child W: ” NO!!! it’s not “ (sounding annoyed).

Teacher E: “Chatty. Who is a chatterbox in this class?”

Everyone: “Child D! “

The children point to him and we all have a laugh because we all agree that he is a real chatterbox. Child D doesn’t mind, he is excited and has a huge smile on his face, like he is agreeing with the class. I have had to ask him many times to please let the other children also talk – he just interrupts – and Child B and Child W really get annoyed with him.

I ask the other girls if they have any words and they just shake their heads.

Child D: “Put your hands on your brain and close our eyes and just think quietly of the words that Frederick will say”.

We all close our eyes.

Child D: “Frederick has given me three words, Colours, Warmth and Cauliflower”.

Teacher E, Rehema and myself are trying hard not to laugh because the word Cauliflower is so unexpected. Child D is looking serious and we do not want to ruin his creativity and we think that this is so amazing.

I say, “Cauliflower, that’s interesting”.

Child D: “Yes because my mommy wants me to eat it”.

This reflection is powerful. We notice how empowered the children are by choosing the words and how the language of the story has permeated into their own oral contributions. They have the space to agree and also, importantly, to disagree, not only with each other’s thoughts but the behaviour of others. Some of the children are cross that Child D interrupts and dominates the discussion and are given space to disclose this through the safety of story context. Child D takes on the mantle of Frederick who loves to chat and within the context of the story Frederick and Child D contribute to the community. Their value is recognised but can also be used to initiate future discussions about fairness. Is it fair when people interrupt or don’t allow others to contribute? How can the collective voice be used to create a better society? Child D is given permission to share useful ideas which moves the groups thinking on. He asks them to close their eyes and connect with their brain. He is at this very moment part of the story and draws his friends into the language, sounds, sights and smells of the story itself. Frederick speaks to him not just through recall of the story but through the ability to connect fictional experiences to concrete examples of his own. This example is so important in a society where adults often dismiss children’s ideas as “cute” and laughter diminishes the importance of finding out what prompted the child’s words. In this case Child D had made a very real connection with his mother asking him to try a new food at meal times. Taking time to show an interest in the unusual word made visible Child D’s use of inference, an important skill vital for critical literacy.

I tell the children that Rehema and I would be back tomorrow and they must see if they can’t find Frederick in the hall, passage or even outside because we still don’t know where he has gone to. Child D asks us again to close our eyes and to put our hands on our brain; we all do as we are told.

Child D: “Ok, now let’s quietly stand up and go to the door and stand there and Frederick might come out”.

We all stand up and quietly tiptoe to the door and we stand and wait… but no Frederick. Child L pulls me down as she wants to whisper something in my ear. She tells me she doesn’t think that Frederick is in class. I tell the others what Child L has told me and then Teacher E says they will have to look in the hall.

We finish our session on this note.

We reflect here on the power of the Storyplay model. This initial introduction to the book has transported the children to a landscape they can make visible. Their ideas and words have breathed life into the story just as the images and words of the book itself breathed life into their imaginations. The approach gives permission for this circle of exploration to continue. Frederick now belongs to the class, they can help him to read and write, to collect new words for his poetry. They can protect him, feed him and nurture him, create houses and involve him in their own stories. Vivian Gussin Paley likens this to the creation of “a spontaneous piece of curriculum for each other.”

The teacher watches the children take ownership but retains the authority and ability to move the teaching and learning in the direction which will benefit the children, knowing that her outcomes and curriculum requirements are being addressed. Permission to learn alongside the children is granted to the teacher when meaningful conversations begin to replace the rote learning approach. As Paley’s philosophy illustrates, “observing children play a story demonstrates the importance of make believe as the thinking tool children use. The reality is that most social, linguistic, logical interactions are usually better explained and understood in terms of imaginary themes”.

* Paley interview for NAEYC Young Children September 2001 edition.

(Frederick is one of three books by Leo Lionni which are published by Jacana Publishers and The Little Hands Trust – PRAESA. They are available in English, isiXhosa, Sesotho and Afrikaans as are Swimmy and An Extraordinary Egg.)