Samuel* has difficulties with communication. He doesn’t give you eye contact, he struggles with interaction, during circle time he runs off and goes and does something else. He has a board in the nursery with pictures of a toilet, his coat, the outside play area, etc, so that he can show what it is he wants or needs, as he cannot yet find the words to express himself.
Initially, Samuel* did not join in with the story acting. He would play by himself in a corner. But gradually, he started to interact with the story circle and stage area: sometimes coming to sit with the other children in the circle for a few minutes; sometimes walking right across the stage to get to another corner of the room; and, more recently, just staying on the stage the whole time. He gradually started joining in with the acting in his own way, smiling to himself as the stage got busier and busier, and getting angry and upset when we would all clap thank you and go sit back down.
We had asked him before whether he wanted to tell a story, and had had no answer, or a very firm NO. But last week, I decided to give it another try. Samuel was playing out in the garden, and I followed him and described what he was doing: ‘Oh, I can see you holding on to the bars and stepping very carefully from one log to the next.’ I was rewarded for my interest and narration by a smile to himself. So I decided to press on: ‘Would you like to tell me a story?’ ‘Yeah, 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10,’ said Samuel, pointing at the hopscotch letters on the ground. I scribbled the numbers down hastily. ‘1 2 3 4 5’ he said again. ‘1 2 3 4 5’. Then he ran over to the puppet theatre, pulled back the curtains and said: ‘Peekaboo!’ I followed, scribbling as I went. ‘Come here’, he said, grabbing my arm as he pulled me over to yet another number line. He started off down the line, hopping on each number as he went, and I followed, scribbling his words as I hopped ‘1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8’. Then he ran off, and further attempts to discover whether there might be any more to his story were met by silence. I decided that probably meant there wasn’t.
Then we sat down for the story acting. Samuel was on the stage right from the start, occasionally joining in with the sounds the various characters were making. Then it was his turn. ‘Look everybody,’ I said, ‘It’s time for Samuel’s story, and he’s on stage and ready to act it out already’. Huge smile. As I read out the story, Samuel would repeat some of the numbers, even bending down and touching the ground as he had done in the playground. Then I read ‘Peekaboo’ and, huge smile still in place, he started to play peekaboo, and the whole class joined in with the game, playing peekaboo from outside the stage, with Samuel standing proudly in the middle. We finished the story and clapped thank you, and even Samuel clapped for himself, looking as if he might burst with pleased-ness.
And then, to top it all off, when we sang the frog song at the end of the session, he gave me eye contact all the way through and joined in with all the actions.
Over the course of my time with Helicopter (which hasn’t been all that long, after all), I’ve been amazed and touched by the progress made by all the children. It’s very rare for the Helicopter Stories not to somehow touch children and spark their imagination, their curiosity, their sense of playfulness, their bravery. But watching Samuel being given the freedom to be himself during the sessions (wherever that self might choose to place himself), and seeing him open up gradually to the point of actually telling a story has been an especially poignant example of how and why this approach works so well. And what a fantastic example he has set for other children who struggle to communicate, and for the teachers who struggle to communicate with them – the sessions with Samuel have felt like watching a different film version of Vivian Gussin-Paley’s The Boy Who Would Be A Helicopter. What an absolute privilege.
*Name has been changed