Sunday, 17 March 2013

Charlie at play

Blog – Charlie in play

My last blog about my little grandson, Charlie was almost a year ago. He will be three next month and our time together over this year has been mainly enjoyed through stories of all different shapes and sizes. I stay at his house for about 3 days each month. In the morning he comes in about 6.30 am and says, “Hallo Nana – story”. By 11.00 am we could easily have shared 40 stories. These stories come from books, and from my memory of traditional fairy tales and most recently, Charlie and I have created stories together. He knows what he likes and doesn’t like and this changes all the time. He enjoys oral stories most of all and as the year has gone by he has increasingly joined in with the repetition and patterns that are characteristic of stories aimed at young children. He loves revealing that the knocking on the door in the story of the Three Little Pigs is, “a big bad wolf!” He loves singing the song, “Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf” and chanting the refrain of the giant to Jack, “Fe, fi, fo, fum, I smell the blood of an English man”. The rhythm and pattern of story, the shape of the narrative chimes in with who he is at the moment. This year I have learnt that Charlie is passionately attached to fantasy; he lives in his imagination and has a need to listen to stories and over this year that need has been extended to the creation of his own stories which he wants to tell and act out. It is through these fantasy worlds that Charlie explores ideas and in the process his vocabulary has exploded and his narrative skills grown.
Has my love of story and willingness to share stories with Charlie made him like that? Of course Charlie is influenced by the world he has been born into, but he is not a passive receiver of stories, he is also an active interpreter and shaper of the story world. Having the luxury of being a grandmother and the chance to spend some intensive time with Charlie has taught me so much. In the world he has been born into stories are important. I love stories and so does Charlie’s mother, we think stories are important for small children and in this time between two and three years of age, Charlie has been introduced to all manner of stories. From traditional stories that have been passed down the centuries that exist both orally and in books – the fairy tale – to modern books about daily life for children who are both similar and different to him, to books about animals behaving very much like people and to other imaginary worlds. His life is enriched by high quality picture books that we buy for him and he borrows from the library. Through these stories he has become aware of dinosaurs and monsters and witches. He is also a fan of CBeebies (the children’s TV channel) and in particular the characters of Fireman Sam, Mike the Knight and the Octonauts. He also loves to play with my iPad and his favourite application is about Fireman Sam where Charlie is called on to be Fireman Sam and rescue cats from trees, put out fires, load up Jupiter (the fire engine) and look for his fire-fighting equipment. He also loves nursery rhymes and songs and simple games, enhanced by regular visits to Rhyme Time at the local library and regular singing at his nursery, which he attends three days a week. In my earlier blogs I talked about visiting the woods with Charlie and his enchantment with the natural world and we still make regular visits to the woods, but now it is to tell and act out stories, ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’, ‘The gingerbread man’, ‘Goldilocks’ and so on. We talk to the ‘talking trees’, we look for fairies – the woods have become a place for imaginative play. Charlie has further access to stories through live theatre and has been to several shows this year including ‘Snow White’ at Christmas and was absorbed by the circus last month, in both he sat entranced for two and a half hours.

Charlie obviously lives in a world that is enriched by stories of all kinds and his immersion in those stories has definitely helped him to develop his capacity for creating meaning out of stories. As the year has gone by he has demonstrated his creativity as he has taken the different genres of stories and made them his own. I have been called upon to create stories that satisfy his demands, weaving dinosaurs with Fireman Sam, Mike-the-Knight with the Octonauts and creating new adventures that have evolved as we have shaped them together. Story-telling has become something we share together, not something I do for Charlie.

At the beginning of the year it appeared as if Charlie was passively receiving stories, but as the year has progressed he has actively sought to fashion and reinvent imaginary worlds for himself and for us, his family. Sometimes he does just retell the stories he has heard over and over again, but more often he actively reshapes them as he creates meaning out of the narratives for himself. In the last few weeks he has started to make up his own stories and the influences of all the narratives he is immersed in are identifiable. He uses props like his Fireman Sam figures and play fire station, dinosaur and dragon figures to animate his stories; he dresses up as a knight and gallops on his wooden horse, dons his Fireman Sam or Bob the Builder outfits and acts out a variety of scenarios.

Most of all Charlie knows what he likes in stories, although this can change from week to week. One week he will demand a story about ‘a monster’ or ‘a dinosaur’, sometimes he wants a ‘Mike-the-knight’ story or a ‘Fireman Sam’ story (his two favourite CBeebies programmes). Since he was about 15 months we have played rescuing his favourite rabbit, Flopsy from the woods, which involved me putting Charlie in the role of Fireman Sam and I did all the voices, “Help! Help! Rescue me!” “Oh thank you, Fireman Sam, you’ve saved the day.” “That’s all right Flopsy.” Now he leads the dramas and we have acted out over and over again the same scenarios, endlessly rescuing Norman Price, (a child in Fireman Sam) from ‘the well’. Living in Wales I can do a fair impression of Dilys, Norman’s mother and Charlie loves it when we take on the role of the characters.  Now he has appropriated the voices, one minute he is Norman, “rescue me” and the next he is Fireman Sam on the end of a phone reassuring Dilys he is coming to the rescue, “Don’t worry, Dilys” and to his fire fighting colleagues, “Let’s get Jupiter and go!” “Come on, Elvis!”

Charlie’s language has exploded this year and has clearly been influenced by all the stories he has heard.  He has shown he is a thinker. Half way through this year, in response to a demand for a “Knight story, Nana”, I told him the story of Rapunzel, the princess who was locked in a tower by a witch and courted by a knight. After he had heard the story three times Charlie came to me, “I don’t like it when the witch throws the knight in brambles and he blind. I like it when he can see again.” Already he is making moral judgments about the actions of characters. When he asked for a story about a bear and a monster I made up a scenario whereby a bear and a monster living in two different houses both didn’t want to go to bed because they were scared. The Monster was scared of bears, “Don’t be silly”, said his mother, “There’s no such thing as bears”. The bear was scared of monsters, “Don’t be silly”, said his mother, “There’s no such thing as monsters”. Charlie stopped the story. “I’m going to tell Daddy, I don’t think he knows that.” He runs to the kitchen, “Daddy, did you know – there’s no such thing as monsters?” He is increasingly showing that he is thinking about the ethical issues embedded in stories. After Norman has wasted Fireman Sam’s time again getting stuck in the well Charlie suggested we, “smack his bottom”. I decided this was the time to consider a restorative rather than a punitive approach and suggested Norman was given the job of washing Jupiter as Fireman Sam hadn’t had time, because he was busy rescuing Norman from the well. “Yes”, said Charlie, “and then smack his bottom”. Punitive approaches do appeal to young children when applied to characters in stories! Nevertheless, I am hoping that the option of a restorative approach might be sowing a seed that will ripen in the future. The critical reflection I am engaged in through this blog has made me aware that I may have ulterior movies. I have gradually realised I could be in danger of using Charlie’s play instrumentally so I can teach him about the world, shape his values and teach him what it means to be a good person. I am learning that play is not a tool to be wielded by adults, but the process that Charlie is deploying to explore these things for himself.

This is illustrated through a recent story that Charlie and I co-constructed. Through this story we see Charlie becoming an author as he takes the given worlds of stories he has heard and constructs new stories and new worlds of meaning for himself. After I presented Charlie with a dinosaur I had knitted for him he wanted to have a dinosaur story. I asked, “What else is in the story?” He wanted a boy in the story; I suggested the boy could be “Charlie”. “No, Jack” he said. “Where shall we have the story?” I asked.  “By the sea,” he said. My mind had to work fast to try and create a story from the characters and setting he had decided upon and inevitably ideas from other stories become woven into my story – this one I realise has influences from ‘The Iron Man’ by Ted Hughes. I began,

“One day Jack was walking along the cliff top and suddenly he noticed a huge egg on the beach.”
Charlie: “A dinosaur egg”. (Lots of picture books for small children have eggs with dinosaur’s coming out of them). I cringe when I realise that an instrumental approach to teaching would see this as ‘activating prior knowledge’.
“Maybe” I said. “Jack decided to go down to the beach and look. Just as he got there the egg began to make a cracking noise. Jack was scared and hid behind a rock. Slowly the egg cracked open and out came “[I pause]  
“A dinosaur” said Charlie. 
“Yes, a dinosaur. Jack watched as the dinosaur started to stomp up and down the beach, stomp, stomp, stomp.” (Those with small children will recognize the inter-textual reference to a popular song about dinosaurs.) “Jack didn’t know what to do.” At this point I look at Charlie questioningly, inviting him to join in.
“Tell his mummy” said Charlie. 
“Yes, Jack ran back up the cliff as quietly and quickly as he could.  He ran home and into his house. ‘Mummy, Mummy, there’s a dinosaur on the beach’. ‘Don’t be silly’, said his Mummy, ‘there’s no such thing as dinosaurs’. Jack went and found his Daddy, ‘Daddy, Daddy, there’s a dinosaur on the beach’.  ‘Don’t be silly’, said his Daddy, ‘there’s no such thing as dinosaurs’. [Charlie is now joining in the refrain]. Jack went and found his Nana, ‘Nana, Nana, there’s a dinosaur on the beach’.  ‘Is there Jack? We’d better go and see.’ So Nana and Jack went to the cliff.  Nana looked down at the beach and there sure enough there was a” [I pause again]
“Dinosaur” said Charlie.
“‘We had better go and tell everyone’ said Nana so they went back to the town.” “They should ring the bell Nana,” said Charlie.  [Did he get that idea from Fireman Sam?]
“Good idea Charlie. Nana and Jack went to the church and rang the bell.  All the people came from their houses to the square. Nana told them that Jack had found a dinosaur on the beach. ‘Don’t be silly,’ said the people, ‘there’s [I pause] [Charlie and me together] no such thing as dinosaurs.’
‘Come and see’, said Nana. Nana and Jack led everyone to the cliff. Everyone was so surprised when they saw the dinosaur stomping on the beach.
‘What are we going to do?’ Someone had an idea.
‘Maybe the dinosaur will be like a bird and the first living thing it sees he will think is his mother. Then that person could lead the dinosaur to the quarry where he can’t get out, but will have plants to eat. I think it’s a herbivore.’
‘What a good idea’, said Nana, ‘but who is going to do it?’
‘I’ll do it Nana,’ said Jack, ‘I found the dinosaur so it should be me.’
‘But what will happen when you get to the quarry Jack, how will get back up when the dinosaur has followed you down – it’s very deep?’ [no need for me to pause this time, Charlie leaps up and raises his arm and announces triumphantly] ‘Fireman Sam’.
“That’s a good idea, Charlie, perhaps we better ring him up now – do you want to be Fireman Sam?”
“Let’s ring him now. Brriing Briing, Briing Briing, Hallo, is that Fireman Sam?”
“Yes,” said Charlie.
“Can you go to the quarry and bring rope and winding gear because Jack has found a dinosaur on the beach and he is going to lead it into the quarry and will need help to be pulled back up?’”
“Yes,” said Charlie. [I resumed the story].
“So Jack climbed down the cliff and went up to the dinosaur, the dinosaur immediately started to follow Jack, up, up, up the cliff, through the town, until they got to the quarry.  All the people followed behind. Fireman Sam was waiting. He tied a rope round Jack’s waist and Jack walked down into the quarry. The dinosaur followed. When he got to the bottom he called to Fireman Sam. ‘You can pull me up now Fireman Sam’. Sam started turning the winding gear. [Charlie is now in role turning the handle] Jack was pulled to the top.
‘Thank you Fireman Sam,’ he said.
‘That’s alright Jack,’ said Fireman Sam, ‘glad to be of help.’
‘Hurrah for Jack’, said the people.
Jack’s Mummy and Daddy were so proud of him, but now he was very tired.  Daddy put Jack on his shoulders and carried him home where he had his favourite tea, pancakes and ice-cream [Charlie interrupts, “No, chocolate cake”] and chocolate cake, and went to bed so he would be ready for more adventures tomorrow.”

In co-creating this story with me Charlie shows that wonderful and strange capability that humanity is born with – that of making anew what already is. Charlie is putting his own meaning into an already meaning-saturated world. In his second year he is beginning to invest his world with new shape. He reaches out for communication with those around him, he builds up his language and starts to interpret his world. He is clearly able to apply his understanding of the physical world to his imaginary scenarios, he understands that an egg has a live creature inside that will come out, he knows that if he walks down into a steep quarry he will need help getting out, he knows that winding gear can be used to pull a person up from the quarry. He knows that not all people believe the same things; that you have to provide evidence to convince some people, he knows some things make you scared and that people can be brave or frightened. He knows that Fireman Sam will always act well to save the day. This understanding of both the physical and psychological world is harnessed by his very powerful imagination to reshape the familiar stories of his world. It is through play that he creates his world and brings meaning to his life. But this creation is not a solitary activity; it is achieved interdependently with the adults in his life. We are essentially social beings after all.

In attaching himself to me, his grandmother, Charlie has given me the gift of a new and living social relation and the joy of watching him create his own being in the world.  In turn I am stretched towards new understanding of myself. We work hard at playing and I have got a stronger grasp on the slippery concept of creativity, I have learned from Charlie that each of us is creative. Charlie is an active meaning maker who is not just subsumed into the worlds of meaning into which he has been born, each day I spend with him I see him engaging in the task of remaking that world for himself and for those around him.

Although he has been born into a world that already has meaning and that world is clearly influencing the child he is growing into, Charlie is also re-constructing that meaning, he already shows the human capacity to act and create and change things. Each day he is actively creating his own world of meaning and will continue to do so for the rest of his life.  This is the essence of what Charlie has helped me understand it means to be human – to be engaged with the world you are born into (which you can’t change) but to actively shape and change that world as we grow. What a privileged to be a grandmother!