Hearts beating as one…

At theacting out beginning of a new academic year, I am often asked, ‘When is a good time to start Helicopter Stories?’

As schools and settings are meeting new children and settling them in, it can be hard to imagine how to get started. But my answer is always – As soon as possible.

Helicopter Stories is closely linked to fantasy play, and children engage with it quickly and easily from the moment it is first introduced, as if they have been waiting for it to happen. Although it is an adult led activity, it is one that is so inherently child-centered and so carefully conceived by Vivian Gussin Paley, that it meets the needs of all children, and fits easily into any classroom. Because children take on many roles, from storyteller, to actor, to audience member and even writer, Helicopter Stories is quick to set up, highly engaging, and hugely beneficial. Plus it’s a great way to get to know your children.

It is not the monsters children invented that scared them in the kindergarten. It was being told to sit still and pay attention for long periods of time.                              Vivian Gussin Paley

I have seen so many children on their first day in a seOsmani-21tting – walk over to where Helicopter Stories is taking place and join in as if they’d been doing it all their lives.
To me this makes perfect sense. How do we find our place within a community? We do so by finding where we fit within the stories of everyone around us. When we hear other people’s stories, we discover the connections between us, our similarities and the differences. When we tell our own stories, we share the things we see as important and the way that we look at the world.

You like batman? I like batman too. I have a dog. I don’t have any pets. I want to fly. I’d like to be a firefighter.

What greater way is there to get to know a new group of people, than to take time to enjoy each other’s stories. Adults who run Helicopter Stories on a regular basis report that they know their children far better than they have ever done before. Isn’t that what we all want? To get to know our new group, to find out what is important to them, to see what makes them tick.

In 2017, a group of neuroscientists from UCL conducted a study at the Savoy Theatre in London during a performance of Dreamgirls. They monitored the heartbeat of twelve audience members who were seated in various places across the auditorium. During the performance, the heart monitor showed that all of the hearts sped up and slowed down in response to what was happening on the stage. But, even more surprisingly, from the moment the performance started, all twelve hearts began to beat at exactly the same time. Past studies have shown that when heartbeats synchronise in this way, people are more likely to make friends and like each other.

Now, I have no scientific evidence for this next bit, but, having seen a lot of theatre shows, I am pretty sure I know what it feels like when the hearts of an audience beat as one; that moment where you gasp together, or laugh together or jump together.

I am also pretty certain that this sometimes happens during Helicopter Stories. When HITACHI HDC-1491Echildren are acting out their stories, there are moments when the whole group are focused, whether as actors or audience members. When it feels like a piece of magic is happening , and the concentration in the room is immense.

So if you haven’t had a go already, what better time is there than now. Engage your children in making up stories, and acting them out.

Use it as a way to get to know your new group, and see if you can sense those moments when the hearts of everyone in your room, really do start to beat as one.

Have a great Autumn Term from everyone at MakeBelieve Arts…

If you would like to know more about Helicopter Stories visit http://www.makebelievearts.co.uk or email info@makebelievearts.co.uk

Princesses, Dragons and Helicopter Stories is a how to book on the approach.


Scribing Verbatim Part 2 – Creating an Exact Record

Bella sat beside me. I wrote her name at the top of my A5 sheet of paper, and she started to dictate her story. Like many of the children I run demonstrations with, I had never met her before and I had no idea what words would come out of her mouth.

“W. A. Pon. A. Tum.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t hear you, could you repeat that?” I asked, leaning forward and making sure that this time I was listening more carefully.

“W. A. Pon. A. Tum,” she repeated.

Immediately I understood.

“Once upon a time,” I repeated, saying each word out loud as I wrote it on my A5 page.

“A prin-ess live in a car-all,’ Bella continued. Her speech was difficult to understand, but I tuned my ear into the various nuances of her language and was able to scribe her exactly.

The final story went like this:

‘Once upon a time a princess lived in a castle.

And with really long hair.

With a cape. A pink cape.

Her got high heels on.

And her got pink hair.’

While I was scribing Bella’s story, I was making a lot of choices. I could see that she had a range of speech and language difficulties, and was struggling to shape the words in her mouth. Where this is the case, I always write what I believe the child is trying to tell me, rather than the words they actually say. If I had repeated W. A. Pon. A Tum, that would have felt like I was making fun of her.

W. A. Pon. A. Tum became Once upon a time.

By repeating these words back to Bella, I acknowledged that I understood what she was telling me.

However, when it came to the grammar side of her story I wrote her words verbatim.

Her got high heels. And her got pink hair.

An Exact Record:

By writing verbatim, we create an exact record of the children’s grammatical understanding. This gives us a range of information on where each child is with regards to their speaking, narrative development and comprehension. I keep copies of children’s stories in individual books, made out of a cover and a treasury tag, and in this way I can also see progression.

To change the sentences above to She has got high heels and she has got pink hair, would be to change the rhythm of the authors speech. When Bella dictated her story to me, she said these words with such pride, looking into the distance as if she could see the princess she was describing.

Modelling language during the Acting Out:

When Bella acted her story, I read each phrase back to her, exactly as she said it, and then I asked to see the actions.

Can I see the girl walking around the stage in her high heels? Can you pretend that you have pink hair?

Bella moved her head as she walked, as if shaking out a mane of pink locks. She smiled as she stepped into the castle that had been created by four of her classmates.

At that moment, I didn’t need to correct her grammar. The learning that was happening without my intervention was plentiful, and I doubt she would have noticed anyway, she was so engaged in her own creation.

Bella was demonstrating creativity. During the scribing she created an imaginary character. During the acting, she demonstrated comprehension, by bringing the story to life. During the process her confidence soared, which isn’t surprising, as that is what happens, when our ideas are appreciated and our unique way of expressing ourselves is accepted.



A Language Rich Environment:

I am always modelling language with children. I do it through conversation, through telling oral stories, and through repeating back sentences in the correct tense.

But when I do Helicopter Stories I write each word exactly as it is told.

Often fight becomes fighted, go becomes goed, run becomes runned. This is one of the most common errors that occurs in early language development. When children add an ED in the wrong place they are demonstrating an understanding of the grammar rule where we add these two letters to a word to move it to the past tense. What we see with these errors is children applying a rule correctly, and the only reason it’s incorrect is because the English language is full of irregular verb. I have never heard an adult say fighted, or goed or runned. Linguist, Gary F. Marcus refers to this error as over-regularizing the past tense rule. In an article entitled Why Children Say Breaked, he stated, “Because parents almost never over-regularize, these errors demonstrate that the language learning involves more than mere imitation.” Children are making sense of a rule, and over time they will learn when not to use it.

If we bombard children with questions, corrections, or comments about what they are saying and how they should say it correctly, we are stopping them from discovering these things for themselves.

I am told beautiful stories each day by the children I am lucky enough to work with. Regardless of where they live, or what their lives have been like so far, all the children I meet understand Helicopter Stories and engage with it, as if they have always known about it and have just been waiting for someone to ask. This is their opportunity to express themselves, however they choose, a place where they can play with language and develop their narrative ideas without fear of getting anything wrong.

Believe me, the rewards are worth it.

Here is a story from 5 year old Max:

Once upon a time there was a shark. The shark lived in the water and the shark can jump high. And then there was a lot of mermaids in the water. And the shark ate all the mermaids up. And then all the heroes came and killed the shark. And then the mermaids were free again.

Scribing Verbatim: Part 1 – Creativity

scribing (5)One of the questions that is often asked about Helicopter Stories is why both Isla Hill and I scribe verbatim, exactly what each child dictates, without attempting to correct their grammar or push the child to elaborate on his or her story.

I have several reasons for why I do this and over the next few blogs I am going to explain some of these in detail.

I will start with my favorite reason – Creativity:

Creativity is one of the most important skills we have and yet it is often the least encouraged within our society. It isn’t about conforming to rules and working within rigid structures. It is about pushing boundaries, asking questions and taking risks.

When we are working creatively we find ourselves thinking in different ways, making connections that others might not have seen, inventing new products, imagining new possibilities and solving problems. In his Ted Talk Do Schools Kill Creativity Ken Robinson discusses how children have a natural capacity for being creative, and how sadly we school this out of them.

For me, during Helicopter Stories, the most important premise is to allow children to explore their creativity without input or correction from an adult. Children are given the opportunity to make up a story, without planning or fixing it first. Amazingly, they do this easily and willingly from as young as just two years of age.

IMG_2710There are many skills that children utilise when they dictate their own stories. They are being spontaneous, improvising, communicating with an audience and creating something from nothing. In order to achieve this, they readily use all the means at their disposal; the expression on their faces, the movement of their hands, the words or sounds they know and the ones they have invented to serve this purpose. They communicate with urgency, telling the story as it forms in their minds, so that we can record it on paper.

To be brought back from this place of imagination to the world of correct grammar or questions that expand on the plot, is in my mind a distraction that is jarring. Imagine you were telling someone about a time when you were happy and they kept interrupting you to find out what colour dress you were wearing, or how many people were there, or what the date was. Eventually your focus would be lost and the story would fizzle out.

When we scribe children’s stories verbatim, we place value on the words they use to describe their universe. The stories we scribe reveal so much about the way an individual child sees their world, their understanding, and the nuances they use to explain it. Often children’s dictated stories contain a rhythm or an unusual way of playing with language that is worth celebrating for its unique creativity. This element that is so special in their stories would be lost if we decided to correct them.

This sentence below is part of a story from a five year old EAL girl. The princess was running away from a big bad wolf. She eventually arrived at her house and ran inside.

‘And then she closed the door, a thousand cellotapes.’

What a beautifully descriptive way of locking a door. During the acting out, the girl sealed the door with an imaginary roll of tape, sticking it across the entrance to ensure no wolf could get in. Look at of the rhythm of her sentence, the way every word counts, the vividness of her imagination.

To be creative we need to be in a safe space. If we are judged, or our way of speaking is questioned, we will be unable to take the risks necessary to make up stories.

John Cleese describes creativity as a bit like a tortoise. It pokes its head out nervously to see if the environment is okay before it fully emerges. If we want to develop a creative classroom, we need to create a ‘tortoise enclosure,’ a safe haven where creativity can emerge.

As a writer myself, a lot of my first drafts are about The Joy of Writing Badly  – getting my story out and not worrying how awful it sounds to anyone else. For me it is a distraction to concentrate on the micro management of the words on my page, have I spelt this one right, could I say that one better, until I have an idea of the bigger picture. Editing happens later, but during the first stage of creativity, I just concentrate on getting the story out.

I have seen 4-and-5-year-olds retell the same story week after week after week as part of their own self-elected editing process. They might change one aspect of it, or one word, but gradually they are shaping their story, and developing the way they tell it. This is the same as we all do, when we share a personal story of excitement or trauma with lots of different friends. With each retelling we add and hone our version, until we are able to tell it almost without thinking.

Our two, three, four, five, six and seven year olds are just beginning to craft their stories. They need time to play with the wonderful language they are acquiring and time to discover their own rhythms and the ways they communicate with an audience.

By scribing verbatim through Helicopter Stories – I find myself in the privileged position of hearing a range of stories, from a range of children, each of them told in a unique voice.

There was a monster in the woods. And it did eat the trees. The monster went to a house, and sat on a chair. And it did say, ‘Where’s my supper.’ And it did look at the pots on the stove. And it did see that someone was cooking. And it was afraid. And it ran up to the bedroom and hide-ed itself under the covers.

Nicholas – Age 5

If you would like to know more about Helicopter Stories visit http://www.makebelievearts.co.uk or email info@makebelievearts.co.uk  01249 714607

Princesses, Dragons and Helicopter Stories is a how to book on the approach.