Finding a Voice: Helicopter Stories in New Zealand

“I heard an audible intake of breath from Abby’s teacher; we were experiencing the limitless potential of this simple yet profound approach we call Helicopter Stories.” 

About ten years ago, when I lived in London, I learned to deliver Helicopter Stories with Trisha Lee and Isla Hill. I now live back at home in Aotearoa, New Zealand, where I have started delivering Helicopter Stories as a visiting practitioner.

At one school, I had a wonderful encounter with a girl called Abby, who has communication difficulties. Very little of what she says can be understood. When she speaks, it comes out as sounds, and it rarely contains words that others can understand.

After the first session, the teacher I was working with asked about Abby joining in, explaining her difficulties. I shared some anecdotes about how the approach supports all children at all stages of development. We had to include Abby. We agreed that the following week we’d invite Abby to join us and see how it went.

During our first Helicopter Stories sessions, Abby remained on the periphery and watched. I invited her onto the stage when it was her turn, but she didn’t join in.

Fast forward a couple of weeks: I was surrounded by children wanting to tell me their stories… including Abby. She sat patiently as I finished scribing a story for another child. Then it was her turn

I wrote Abby’s name at the top of the page. She started talking. I didn’t understand her, but she was communicating so clearly in her own unique way. A story was being told – that was absolutely clear.

After a few moments, Abby gently took the pen out of my hand and began writing on the page herself. As she did, occasional words emerged that I could understand. I repeated them and said, “shall I write that down?” Abby demonstrated she agreed by handing me back the pen.

I heard an audible intake of breath from her teacher; we were experiencing the limitless potential of this simple yet profound approach we call Helicopter Stories. Surrounded by children, Abby and I continued to scribe her story like this – she talked and wrote. I repeated the words that I understood, which she permitted me to write down.

Here is Abby’s Story.

Her first words were “A monster.” The story she had just heard dictated by another child contained a MONSTER character. I love the fluid sharing of stories between children that happens during Helicopter Stories; a communal borrowing of ideas. Abby’s delicacy and focus to tell her story was captivating. I learned that it was not about her trying to make me understand, but rather it was up to me to understand her. This was her world, utterly, and it was my job to meet her – not the other way around.

When she finished, I asked Abby which character she wanted to play in the story-acting. Her response was unclear, but it didn’t matter. As soon as we taped out the stage on the floor, Abby was on it! Eager to tell her story, repeatedly saying, “Abby, Abby, Abby….”.

We started the acting out with her story. Abby looked focussed and ready. A child invited onto the stage stomped around pretending to be a monster. Abby joined in for a moment but then continued to move around the stage as children were invited to play the other characters. 

She moved like a dancer shifting between all her characters; a stomping monster, prancing unicorns, funny penguins, a spectacular round moon and a delicate butterfly. Abby’s arms were thrown in the air at times. She looked happy with herself and her story. And the children revelled with her, as actors and audience.

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