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The Magic Space

It was lovely to be back doing Helicopter Stories today at the new settings in Havering.  It was very much like meeting up with an old friend, I nearly always leave Helicopter Story sessions with a glow inside.

Today were the introductory sessions for two schools, whose staff had attended the Helicopter INSET in December. I took a couple of stories around the stage to introduce the children to the idea of storytelling and story-acting.  After a few demonstrations of pre-collected stories (not from today’s children), I asked if anyone wanted to share a story.  One little boy’s hand shot up.  Jobe.  I wrote his name at the top of the page, and let him know that I was ready to start writing as soon as he had his story.

He thought.

We waited thirty seconds.  A minute.

A year ago this kind of pause would have panicked me.  It would have panicked me one on one, let alone in front of 29 pairs of small eyes.  But, as I looked around, the other 29 children were waiting with as much anticipation as I was for Jobe’s story.  This is the magic space… where the sparks are flying, the words are darting around, a story it beginning to weave itself ready to be known.

We waited another minute.

“What’s your story for us today?”  I whisper.  This is the crucial magic space, I don’t want to speak so loud I disrupt it.  Finally he takes an inward breath, I put my pen to the paper…


I write it down, reading it back to him as I do.  Another lengthy pause.

“Reindeer.”  He points to the page, indicating that I should write it down again.  “There are two reindeers.”  I nod.  “Father Christmas.  End.”

I read it back, it’s a fine story and lots of fun to act out.

I’m no longer panicked by the magic space like I used to be.  That urge to prompt, or fill the silence is no longer there like it used to be.  Now, I’m curious about it, excited, wondering what thoughts are flying as we prepare to begin.


The community of 2’s

Last night I was reading ‘In Mrs Tully’s Room’ by Vivian Gussin Paley and came across this passage about the stories of 2 yr olds often having Mummy’s in.
Seems like the best reason to tell a story, when you are two, it to keep Mama in mind. And to get everyone to do something with you, on your terms. Maybe you’re not so lonely then.
This reminded me of what a beautiful community storytelling and story acting produces, even for those who are just finding out what a community is. As a mum of a 2yr old I see his daily struggles with sharing and finding his place. It is inspiring to think what a wonderful part story acting can play in supporting 2yr olds in building friendships. ‘You are my friend because I am in your story.’
It felt so important and so magical.

Learning a Language

I ran my first Helicopter project in a school earlier on this year in the summer term, it was a really wonderful experience to work side by side with colleague Emma Deakin in delivering the programme to two schools in Kent.

I’ve always loved language.  I especially love English, because there are just so many brilliant words.  And each word has about five alternatives if it doesn’t sit quite right in a sentence. (I love thesauruses too).  I speak Italian, which I also love for it’s pronunciation and there are many, many great words, but in learning Italian, I realised just how complicated the English language is.  Italian often has one word to cover a variety of similar ideas, for example ‘Su’, can be used to say ‘on’,  ‘up’, ‘above’, ‘on top of’ ‘upstairs’ or ‘upon’.  Or ‘chiuso’, which covers ‘shut’, ‘closed’, ‘locked’ and ‘enclosed’.  Once you know the word for one thing, you can often guess and cover a number of other things.  They don’t have a future tense either.  And their dictionary is a fair bit thinner than ours.

It was in Helicopter that this complicated English language became a huge hindrance to my delivery.  The thing I found trickiest about becoming a Helicopter Level 2 deliverer was learning the language and scaling back the language I used when speaking to the children so as not to over complicate things.  The way to ask children to come up to the stage, the way to ask for a story, the way to NOT use language but sit quietly as a story whirlwinded in a child’s imagination, picking up speed at it readied itself to be born onto the blank page. (“Your story can be as long as you like, but it can’t be longer than the bottom of the page.”)  There was a whole new language to learn, at times it felt difficult as over and over again I realised I’d used too many words or over complicated language, and things would come to a momentary halt.   But, as I got more practice in, spent more hours around the stage, my knowledge of the language developed and I became more fluent.

The other thing I’ve always loved about Helicopter is that the children are allowed to break the language rules without the concern of being corrected.  We may model the correct language during story acting, for instance:

Child:  And then I seed him

Me:  And then I seed him (reading the story)  Can we see you seeing the man?

But, the corrections are very subtle, and the story stays true to the original words it was spoken in.  There’s also something delightful in reading the stories aloud to the group and being allowed to break the grammar rules as an adult.  And of course, by not correcting the children’s grammar, it doesn’t mean that they won’t learn it eventually- it solely means that during helicopter they can freely express ideas and exercise their imaginations without interruption or correction.

I really valued my time spent around the stage earlier this year, the time I spent learning this language and look forward to doing it again.

A favourite Helicopter moment

One of my favourite Helicopter moments happened way back in February. I was taking a story from Domas, who had not been in England for very long, and I wasn’t entirely sure he understood what I was there to do: the nursery teacher had set him up at a table with her, he had seen a number of sessions so far and even acted in them, and as I waited for him to start and tried to explain what was going to happen in as many different ways as I could think of, he smiled very politely at me all the way through…but didn’t offer any words. And I wasn’t sure whether this was due to him needing more thinking time, or the language barrier.

But eventually, after another gentle prompt from his teacher, he started:


He watched as I wrote the word down, looked pleased with himself, and said: “Mummy” again.

“Would you like me to write that down?” He nodded.

“Mummy”, he then said, and watched to see that I wrote it down a third time. “Daddy”. “Mummy”. “Baby”. “Baby”. As Domas continued to repeat these three words with increasing pride, glee and joy, and checked that I was writing them down right, I could feel a ‘learned’ grown-up voice in me going:  “Oh dear, this is all repetition, I wonder whether it will be interesting enough for the children to watch” and then of course Trish’s mantra “Trust the child, trust the child” to counter it and then a different voice of my own reminding me that this was, in fact, a kind of poetry.

Mummy. Mummy. Mummy.

Daddy. Mummy. Baby. Baby.

Daddy. Baby. Mummy. Daddy.

Baby. Mummy. Daddy. Mummy. 

Baby. Mummy. Baby. Daddy.

Mummy. Mummy. Daddy. Mummy. 

Daddy. Baby. Mummy. Baby. 

Daddy. Mummy. Daddy. 

Mummy. Baby. Daddy. Mummy. 

Daddy. Mummy. Mummy. 

When it came to acting out, Domas wanted to be Baby. A little boy came up to play Mummy, and did a huge jumping pirouette. A girl came up to play Daddy, and performed the same move (you can see why Mummy and Daddy made such a great couple) . They waited eagerly to see what would happen next. Domas didn’t even need prompting: he had been watching me to see when his turn was, and he got up, stood next to Daddy, and simply held Daddy’s hand while I read the rest of the story.

The children loved the story so much that Mummy, Daddy, Baby and the poetic repetition of their names made appearances in a few more stories after that. And why not? The experience of being a baby and having a mummy and a daddy is a fairly universal one, and far from being boring, the repetition of the familiar words made it even more soothing and wonderfully comforting. Trust the child. Trust the child.


Underneath the Surface

“Hi Hayley, sorry, can I call you back later?  I’m about to do my helicopter training.”


“Oh, no, not real helicopters, just this thing I’m doing with MakeBelieve Arts.  I’ll explain when I see you.”

And I tried.  It’s hard to explain though, or perhaps not hard, but it’s not as simple as it sounds.  My quick explanation to friends when out for a drink (and if they seem interested, I’ll tell them more) is: ‘It’s a storytelling and story-acting practise for children, created by a lady called Vivien Gussin-Paley, and developed by MakeBelieve Arts in their Helicopter technique programme.  We go in to nurseries, collect stories from the children (word-for-word) and act them out.’  It sounds really simple.  When you watch an expert it looks really simple, but lying just underneath the surface are hours of research and practice, a language, a way of speaking and delievering; all of which I’m learning, and getting better at, but still at times realise, I’m doing wrong.

Maya’s told me a story of how her mum ‘told her off.’  I’m nervous.  I don’t want to make her sad by retelling her story if it was something that may have been challenging for her.  Of course, I was forgetting, all children get told off from time to time.  It’s not necessarily stressful for them.  Her story is her story and she told it to me cheerfully enough.

“Can you show me how your mummy’s face looks when she tells you off?  Let’s all make our faces look like how Maya’s mummy’s face looks when she tells her off.”  Arrggghhh.  We’re all sat round the stage and I know I’m making no sense.   I’m over complicating it massively, tongue-tied, tangle-worded and I don’t know how to recover myself.  I move on.  Afterwards I realise I could have asked:

“Maya, what does your mummy say when she tells you off?”

Or, perhaps

“Maya, can you pretend to be your mummy when she’s cross.”

Something simple, something direct and uncomplicated.  It’s this that  I struggle the most with, asking for the action in the moment.  I’m gradually getting better with practice;  I find the words and phrases come to me a little easier.

The past five weeks working in a Nursery in Essex have been a huge learning curve for me, and every minute I spend around the stage I learn a little more, understand a little better and relax a little further.

Flying in the helicopter

11am 4th March 2014

This blog will be in two parts. I have a vague idea of how it starts. I don’t know how it will end. There is the morning part – this one. There will be an afternoon part – later today.

Last Tuesday I began my placement with MakeBelieve Arts at a Nursery in Essex to learn more and engage with the Helicopter Technique. Inspired by Vivian Gussin Paley’s work it is a technique in the classroom of storywriting and storyacting. The storytellers (the children) I am Helicopter-ing with are 3 and 4 years old. Here is an example of one of the stories from last week;

“Once upon a time there was a dragon and a little boy called Jack. And he played football. And then he lost the ball. And a scary witch camed. And she put it in the trap. And a boy came along. And he rescued the princess and got her out.”

Needless to say an essential part of this technique is writing the story EXACTLY as the child tells it. Verbatim. Then it is acted out within a square or rectangular masking taped shape on the floor which is their stage. It is acted out in turns. There is no obligation for any child to enter the stage if they do not wish to. The storyteller is offered first dibs of which character they would like to be in their story. Again, there is no obligation to be in one’s own story, but usually the offer is taken up. The young boy from the above story chose to be the boy JACK. The child saw his story so clearly, and all the children wanted to be in his story! During the storyacting he made an edit with in the playing;

“Once upon a time there was a dragon and a little boy called Jack. And he played football. And then he lost the ball in the bush….”

He saw his story so clearly that the added detail was very important in the acting. Detail that had taken time to form and grow from the time his story was written down to the time of playing it on the stage.

I read this recently from Gussin Paley’s book The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter;

What makes children pay attention to the ideas and demands and complaints of classmates? The same conditions, I think, that create sense and order of other classroom enigmas: the need to have a friend and be part of a dramatic structure. Children see themselves, always, inside a story. Indeed, friendship itself is defined in terms of fantasy roles. You are a friend if you take part in someone’s play, you are most likely to listen to those with whom you are acting out a series of events.

I’m finding this technique altogether utterly profound and incredibly simple. There is more to write. But I need to get my things together and head to the nursery now. Will complete upon my return…


5PM 5pm 4th March

Hello again. I am home from my training this afternoon. I took down three stories today. One from Lucy;

“Once upon a time there’s a princess and there was a dragon and the knight saved the princess from the kite. There was a bug and a cat chasing it. And then there was a toy elephant walking to him. And the fairy rescued the princess from the cage”

The knight can be a girl. The bug can have huge wings or tiny little ones – any wings it likes. The elephant might be very still or run around the stage – heavy, light, or neither, something else entirely. The most important thing is to do as little as possible in terms of leading. What makes outstretched arms better wings than just fingers fluttering a little for wings? Answer is they don’t. This technique is utterly child led. We don’t show them how to blow fire if they’re being a dragon or that they have to be on all fours to be a cat. When you let them truly find their own play, they will. And what they share is treasure, and so incredibly exciting. Not to mention enormously beneficial in vertically every developmental way – but that is likely to be another blog.

Gussin Paley also wrote in the same book, titled above;

“There is a tendency to look upon the noisy, repetitious fantasies of children as non educational, but helicopters and kittens and superhero capes and Barbie dolls are storytelling aids and conversational tools. Without them, the range of what we listen to and talk about is arbitrarily circumscribed by the adult point of view.”

I have four more Tuesday afternoons at this nursery. There will be more to share and therefore write about I think. I read in an article (forgive that I don’t remember the title!) that story itself is to humans like water is to fish. We are surrounded by it all the time it’s almost impossible to deconstruct and understand it’s deeper purpose and profundity in our lives. These children truly are like fish swimming around in their oceans of story.

Gussin Paley also says;

“A day without story is a disconnected day.”