There was a giant muddy puddle and somebody called “2”. She was surprised because there was a massive big puddle. Then three other cars came along, they were called Jack, Olivers and one was called Ronnie. Then the builder came along to build a house for all of them. Then they lived happily ever after in the house, the house was made of bricks.
I have been meaning to write a blog on this for quite a while now and it wasn’t until the other day when I really started to think. I was working in a nursery for the morning and two children in that morning referred to me as ‘Miss’. Now it could have been quite funny that the boy had mistakenly said it but he hadn’t. The boy said it naturally as if I was being weird in correcting him and saying ‘My names Simon’. It was so natural for this child to see an adult and call ‘Miss’. What do you call a male practitioner in a nursery? It’s so rare the children don’t need to know.
Over the past year I have been able to visit lots of nurseries and deliver ‘Helicopter Stories’. One of the unique parts of the approach is that it allows children to feel listened to and valued, which is so different to what they are used to.
When I enter a nursery children run up to me, excited for my arrival, stories ready to tell. I see children engaged, wanting to play, wanting to talk to me, to tell me everything they have been up to, 100mph conversation and I listen to them. They say they love me within an hour of me being in the nursery. One girl told me her story. She was so excited to have it acted out. Always looking to me to get my approval. Waving to me, that bond is something special.
It’s as if I am a famous person, as if I am dressed up in their favourite superhero costume or story character but I’m not, I’m just Simon and I’m listening! And this is the same response that I see children give to both male and female workshop leaders who have entered their settings to deliver ‘Helicopter Stories’; but is it completely the same?
Do the children have a different response to male practitioners in a nursery? I think they do.
In a recent study only 2% of early years professionals are male. This is shocking and needs to change. I have been able to experience children’s response to a male in their setting and it has been so rewarding for me but most importantly for the children. In my opinion, having a male there gives it a completely different dynamic.
So the question could be asked am I engaging to the children because of my personality as Simon or is it my gender that’s engaging them? In my opinion and that of a colleague of mine is that children are fascinated by males because they don’t always associate dad with play or stories. This Is not something that dad does – a male does, it’s something that mum does with me – a female. So when I enter the nursery as a male and ask them to tell me a story and I listen to them it’s something so new and exciting they don’t want me to leave.
This was no more apparent than when I recently led some ‘Helicopter at Home’ sessions. A session open to all parents to learn the approach so that they can do stories at home with their children. 10 parents arrived. 9 mums and 1 dad. It could be said that it’s the morning and they work but when I finished the session and started to walk out to the playground, I was met by the parents picking up their nursery children, the 9 mums but also at least 10 dads. Why did they not come to the session? Is it because dads don’t do stories?
It has been so special for me to do the ‘Helicopter Stories’ approach with the children. To sit down with them and listen to them tell me their story. I love the approach and I am lucky to be able to visit lots of different nursery settings. Hopefully I can have a positive impact on those children in the short amount of time that I am working with them.
One other unique part of the ‘Helicopter Stories’ approach allows for boys to play girls and girls to play boys. A boy becomes a princess and a girl becomes a builder. A safe space is created for children to experience this and the children love it. It’s just a shame that in today’s society, adults can’t learn and follow the children. We need more men to work in early year’s education and more women engineers. There is no judging as children and there shouldn’t be any judgement as adults.
My hope is that maybe one day in the future, a female practitioner gets mistaken for a male! But then again, we are back to my earlier question, what do you call a male working in the early years? If only I could come across one to ask…
Ellie* might be described as a shy child. She will watch things very closely, sometimes from a distance, but she needs time to feel confident enough to join in.
She didn’t usually join in with the acting, but she had told a story before, after a few weeks of watching: ‘Lion’. And when she acted it out, she stood in the corner of the stage, and gave the gentlest, most beautiful of little roars, with a cautious curling of fingers to indicate claws. I regret asking everyone to roar like a lion after that, as the giant wall of sound that met my request quite overpowered the beauty of Ellie’s original brave little roar, and she looked somewhat intimidated as she sat down. Lesson learnt: sometimes a lion needs to roar on her own.
Last week, we asked her friend Taylor* to tell a story, which Taylor was eager to do. As Taylor chose a spot to tell her story, I could feel Ellie’s eyes following us around the room, and when I looked over, I could see her craning to see what was happening. It wasn’t long before she started to drift over towards us, pretending to be casual about it, but fully focused on what was happening. When Taylor finished her story, Ellie was close by enough for us to ask if she wanted to tell a story. ‘No’ she said, but she stayed nearby, coming to sit next to us when the next person came along to tell a story. As each next story was told by a different storyteller, Ellie would be there, at the teacher’s elbow, intently watching each word as it was written down, and occasionally looking up at the storyteller’s face for clues on what the next part of the story might be.
After the fifth storyteller had had their turn, we asked Ellie again ‘Would you like to tell us a story?’ She solemnly nodded. ‘Iron Man’ she said. ‘Iron Man can fly.’
And this time, despite the crowd of parents who had turned up to watch the session, despite the line of children before her who didn’t want to come up and act out stories, Ellie proudly accepted every role that was offered to her, coming to stand in the middle of the stage, acting with some caution, but also with quiet conviction.
‘Iron Man. Iron Man can fly.’
*Names have been changed
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
I’ve been working in 2 school nurseries recently delivering Helicopter Stories and I have noticed something refreshing and very exciting. None of the boys have turned down the role as a female character (Mum, Princess, Sister) and non of the girls have turned down a male role (Dad, brother, Prince, Knight).
I have been in these settings for 5 weeks so far and usually by now I have had some sniggering and comments of ‘he can’t be a princess, he’s a boy’ but this hasn’t happened once. I haven’t needed to have the conversation with the 3 and 4 year old’s that we can pretend to be anything we like, a car, a dog, a princess, a house, a daddy, a volcano…
So is this just a one off? Is there something different about school nurseries that really fosters imaginative play with no gender stereotypes? Are 3 and 4 year old’s now more free to explore their role play? Is there something magical happening in the borough of Havering?
I’d love to hear what other people’s experience of this is. It’s so rare to have 5 weeks without gender coming up once.