The seriousness of Storyplay

Aug 18, 2017 | Storyplay

by Paul Santos

Writing the children’s own stories as they dictate them is integral to PRAESA’s Storyplay work. We adapt the storytelling and story acting curriculum of Vivian Gussin Paley as we try to create respectful spaces for children to be curious and imaginative learners. Such a process is not only personally meaningful but extraordinarily enriching for enabling central aspects of language and literacy learning to emerge. Despite this, it can take significant time and engagement for teachers to be persuaded to fit it in to their curriculum. We need to be able to convince many teachers of its profound educative value. With enough evidence, teachers will come to trust that young children have full and complex emotions, thoughts, ideas and memories to share, even when they may not yet express or write these conventionally.

When adults model the writing-reading process by being the scribe, they enter a partnership to both enable children to find their ‘writing voice’ and to show how much they respect the children as people, and value what they have to say. Children’s confidence, motivation and insights about print grows as they begin to see the links between their personal narratives, writing and reading. Later when the stories are played out on ‘the magic carpet’, they experience how it feels to participate in one another’s stories; dramatisation which is social, intimate and often emotionally charged.

The following reflection is by Paul Santos, an intern with PRAESA from the University of Toronto, Canada, who has been scribing children’s stories in the early childhood classes that PRAESA supports. His writing here raises the issue of  the power we have as adults to shape and integrate children’s emotional needs within classroom teaching and learning. 

Today, I saw sorrow manifest in the eyes of a child. I saw the power of words from one child to another. I saw Vivian Gussin Paley’s work in action before me when a child excluded another in Storyplay; I saw how being part of a child’s fantasy is crucial to a classroom of children. Today, I saw the importance of inclusion and what it is like when one child tells another, “You’re not in my story.”

 …I asked the children if they wanted to hear Child D’s story and all of them yelled ‘yes’.

Then I asked Teacher B if I could do an activity with the children and she said yes. I then invited the children to sit in a circle while I tell the story with Child D beside me:

Once upon a time there was an old lion god and then Scar was so furious and then he take down Mufasa and then he roared the lion got ( ill ) and he did die. Full was the fastest because she’s a girl, Banga was the bravest and Besti was the strongest (he’s a hippopotamus) and Kyon was the leader and his roar is very loud. He scared the hyenas and Jana (the leader of the hyenas). They take down all the outsiders and then Simba saw what they are doing and they shout ‘Happy, happy, happy!’ and they said, ‘Go Kyon! Defeat the outlanders!’

Then Simba said it’s time for the new lion god. And Kyon was more furious than Scar because he’s the new lion god. And Kyon was the best leader and the new lion god will never die again. That’s the end.

Here is where I made a major mistake: I asked Child D to cast the characters in his story. While I was telling the story, I stopped whenever a new character was introduced to look at Child D and asked him who was playing who.

Whenever I stopped, children seemed to know that I still had the power to direct the play so they all stood and yelled “Me!” while raising their hands and walking towards me. However, I allowed Child D to choose.

Aside from instructions on what to do, the children were just standing awkwardly in the centre of the circle – proof to me that Storyplay is not often done in this classroom. I asked them to roar, or run, or lay down whenever the story dictated these actions, but none of them were comfortable to act. They were just huddled in the centre while the rest of the children continue to ask for a part.

So we ended the Magic Carpet and the children applauded the story. I then regained my seat readying to get another child to tell me their story.

This was when a very sad-looking child approached me.

“Teacher Paul, Child D did not put me in his story.” The boy was very timid and small. He approached me a couple of times when I was taking Child D’s story to let me write his name, just like what I asked Child D to do on the top of the story-page. I told him that I would let him write his name after I’d finished with Child D. For both times, he left my table looking disappointed. But when he approached me telling me how he was not part of the Storyplay, I knew I had made the wrong decision. Trying further to alleviate the child’s disappointment, I just hugged him and told him that he could be part of the next story we’d act; he should just wait for the next play and he’d be there. He again left my table looking dejected with his head down.

So I went to Child Y next to get her story. I had no prior stories of hers to read so I did not know what her story interests might be. While we were chatting about how her weekend went, Child D approached us and asked Child Y if he could be part of her story. Child Y said no, he’s not part of the story. Hearing that, Child D mock-hit himself. I thought he was acting out his rejection (and perhaps trying to save face) by pretending to slap himself – a metaphor about kicking himself by failing to grab an opportunity to be part of a game. So Child Y laughed at his actions and we continued chatting.

When I started writing down her story about princesses, Teacher B called me and pointed my attention towards a corner where Child D was curled-up and crying. I immediately knew the reason for this: the child was hurt. I went to him and explained him that it was not his turn yet to be part of Magic Carpet. I told him how, in his story, some children were not given any part because there were not enough characters; that Child P could maybe include him in her story after Child Y’s; that maybe we could act out another story when I came back next time. Child Y was still insisting on not including Child D in her story. She told him that Child P would include him in her story, but he could not be in hers: her story was about princesses and he’s a boy.

Once upon a time, there was a princess called Princess Celestia. And so she meet Nightmare Moon. And so Nightmare Moon went to her castle where she lives with the mommy and daddy. And so Princess Twilight did not get a chance to talk to Princess Celestia. And a lot of ponies came and they have a party. And so Nightmare Moon came back to her sister. And so Nightmare Moon made a diamond in the sky. And a giant came in and he hugged all of the ponies. The end.

I tried to calm Child D down as best I could. I asked Child D if he would be ok and he just shook his head and sat beside me.

Gussin Paley wrote a book entitled You Can’t Say You Can’t Play (1992) where she talked about a rule in her classroom to not say no to anyone in play. Here she talked about fostering a welcoming environment in the classroom free of exclusion and separation, a haven of sorts from the domains of exclusivity found in the ‘outside world’. An often-quoted line in the book states that:

Equal participation is, of course, the cornerstone of most classrooms. This notion usually involves everything except free play, which is generally considered a private matter. Yet, in truth, free acceptance in play, partnerships, and teams is what matters most to any child (Paley, 1992).

PRAESA has implemented this to enable equal participation. They systematically assign children to take part in the dramatisation of the story, going around the circle starting from the position of the storyteller. The teacher asks the child if they would like to play the character in the story: if yes, they go to the centre of the mat; if no, the next child is asked. The rationale for this approach is to provide equal opportunities for children to play roles offered to them. It also reduces instances of bias where the storyteller chooses his/her characters which inevitably are his/her friends.

This systematic approach, which I failed to apply, promotes a ‘pedagogy of fairness’ that Paley puts forward in her writings. By allowing children to realise differences and transcend their personal biases we can actually address fundamental issues such as race and gender diversity. Dramatisation of stories through this approach enables children to develop skills through interactions and conversations and therefore allows them to develop and formulate answers for themselves, guided by a skilled teacher.

However, rejection is still inevitable and will always be a part of life. So by rejecting rejection do we delegitimise it? I think no, and I think Paley would also say no. It can be argued that the child who had rejected someone learned a valuable lesson about how it feels to be rejected, but it is through creating dialogues that we can better understand others’ positions. And until children can express and rationalise themselves better, we should always instil in them the beauty of inclusive spaces, ones of understanding, despite differences.

The very purpose of the listening to and writing of children’s stories is to allow them to realise the importance of their words — that whatever they say can be written, acted and repeated with the hope that it creates a culture of learning. But if they are denied being part of somebody else’s fantasy, even a part as little as standing on the sidelines, and as facilitators we condone that, we create another culture – we give recognition to the power of rejection. An inclusive classroom is a home for all; a home for children learning the importance of both similarity and individuality.