Thursday, 17 October 2013

Living in a Storied World

My grandson, 3 years and 6 months is already showing us what he is most interested in, in his learning world. He is a child who feels at home in the storied world. His appetite for story is enormous. He loves story in all forms. Oral storytelling is his favourite way of hearing a story at the moment, but he loves books, the stories told in his favourite CBeebies programmes (Fireman Sam, Mike the Knight), film and theatre. This week we sat and watched part of ‘Toy Story 3’ and, despite knowing how much he loves story, I was surprised at the level of attention he gave to what is a very complex story for a three-year old.  He watched with huge concentration and was clearly prepared to give all his attention to a story that seemed to me beyond his experience and understanding. I asked him a few questions and it was clear he didn’t understand much of what was happening, but he still watched and listened. He may not understand, but he has an expectation that he will, and he clearly believes it is worth his while to give it his attention. For the rest of the week Buzz Lightyear, the hero of toy story, has had to be incorporated into many of our stories and he frequently launches himself off the sofa or beanbag declaring, “To infility and beyond” (he can’t quite pronounce infinity).

Later in the week on visiting the library there was more evidence of his commitment to story. He found a book aimed at 9-10 year olds, “The Count of Monte Christo”. He was drawn to the pictures of ‘knightly’ people, of palaces and fighting and, despite my suggestion that it was ‘too old for him’, he insisted on borrowing it. Later that evening he sat with his mum and she read the whole story which was written in fairly archaic English and featured events which he would have struggled to link to his own experience. Again he concentrated and didn’t want her to stop the story until she got to the end. He hasn’t asked for the story again, but has enjoyed pouring over the pictures.

These two events reminded me of another occasion when he demonstrated his commitment to story. We had joined a story-telling walk in Oxford, supposedly designed for 4-11 year olds. The format of the walk was well beyond him; much of it was information-giving about the famous story-tellers of Oxford – Tolkein, C.S.Lewis and Lewis Carroll, rather than story-telling. But Charlie persisted, he had been told it was a story-telling walk and despite being the smallest child there, he concentrated and for two hours tried hard to make sense of it. Story means a lot to him and he is prepared to be patient and listen.

When I play with Charlie he constructs and negotiates meaning in the moment. The fact that the way he plays and the way he wants the stories to go changes month by month reinforces this. And Charlie knows what he wants – he is a protagonist, he wants to direct things, his main demand is for stories, but he wants to be involved, to discuss who is in the story and what the characters do and what happens. As his grandmother I aim to spark his ideas and offer him contexts for his story-making. A favourite story is ‘The Magic Porridge Pot’ that a couple of months ago was adapted to incorporate Fireman Sam who comes to the rescue with his hose to wash the unwanted porridge down the street to the river. This week Buzz Lightyear had to be in the story and Charlie was delighted when Fireman Sam needed help because his fire engine, Jupiter could not get into the street flooded with porridge. He called on his friend Buzz who came and lifted the engine above the porridge so Sam could hose down the street from above. And so we continue to adapt this traditional story to incorporate the growing range of characters that are entering his life.

This week we also visited the theatre to see a play designed for 3-6 year olds called “The Feather Catchers”. The cast use mime and music to tell the story of a feather catcher and her quest to capture the illusive blue feather that has a mind of its own and doesn’t want to be captured. When the feather is finally caught it gradually loses its blue colour and becomes white, it stops dancing to the flute and lies still and doesn’t want to play. Seeing the feather’s sadness they decide to let it go and its colour is restored and its joie de vivre returns. The next day Charlie wants me to re-tell the story of the blue feather but he wants to bring Buzz Lightyear into the story to make sure the feather is caught and doesn’t escape. This is clearly a job for a super-hero. What he has taken from the story is the struggle to capture the feather and sees the feather as needing to be controlled. Buzz was the person to achieve this and Charlie was satisfied with the outcome. As an active meaning maker from texts of different kinds he imposed his own meaning on the story to achieve a satisfactory outcome. I think the symbolism of the white feather was lost on him; his focus was the desire to capture the feather and make sure it didn’t escape. Later in the week when we were walking to the library we passed a shop window decorated entirely with white feathers, he was thrilled. “Look Nana, the white feathers are here.”

While we were at the theatre before the show began Charlie picked up a flier for the Christmas Pantomime ­– ‘Robin Hood’. “Tell me about this Nana,” he said. I did my best to remember the story of Robin Hood and the various characters and began to introduce them to Charlie. The song from the TV series in the 1950-60s on BBC TV came to my mind and soon he was joining in with the song, “Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the Glen, Robin Hood, Robin Hood, with his band of men. Feared by the bad, loved by the good, Robin Hood, Robin Hood, Robin Hood.” Soon we had the main characters with an updated strong role for Maid Marion. Aware that children are constrained by their access to alternative gender discourses, I wanted Maid Marion to have prowess in archery and sword fighting, able to use her wits to escape the wicked Sheriff of Nottingham. I think it is important for Charlie to have access to other styles of femininity than the traditional story. For the rest of the week he asked question about what Robin does. He found a stick that is shaped like a bow and about the right size for him and he ‘practised’ his archery skills using a set of plastic straws as arrows pulled by his imaginary bow. His frequent visits to Warwick Castle have given him plenty of experiences to draw on in creating these imaginary worlds.

He was very resistant to the idea that anyone could beat Robin Hood in archery or in a fight, he is already aware of hegemonic masculinities in male heroes and it was hard to convince him that Robin Hood didn’t have to be the best at everything. I had to work very hard to explain that Little John was stronger than Robin and Will Scarlett was a better archer. I think by the end of the week he was prepared to accept that Robin doesn’t have to be the best at everything to be the leader and that good leaders look for people who are skillful and accomplished to help them. It is hard to ensure that he gets the chance to explore other ways of being male or female in current storied contexts. With Robin Hood we have entered another branch of our story-telling world and I wait with interest to see which way it goes.

All this story-telling is helping Charlie to gain his own story-telling skills. I had produced a little photo-book depicting the week the family moved house. Charlie picked it up, “Oh look, that’s kind ­– a story here about us,” and he started to tell a story. I switched on the audio-recorder on my phone and left him as I had to go and sort out his baby brother. The front cover is a picture of the house, he began, “OK, once there was a house and it was 4 Lanham Way [that is his new address] and there was – sit down, sit down [addressed to the baby – sit for story] and now they just want to play with the animals [pictures of soft toys in the garden]. OK and once baby went fast and fast and fast and fast [picture of baby being pulled around the garden in a baby carriage for a bike].” Unfortunately the baby’s crying distracted Charlie from the rest of his story-telling but it was clear he already knows how to begin the process of creating a narrative from pictures in a book, he is already behaving like a reader, although he is much too young to start actual reading yet, he is able to tell stories about his life.

My time with Charlie shows me he is an active and creative actor in his own storied world and I believe his learning is taken forward through our interaction. I try to let him lead, acknowledging him as a child who knows what he wants from a story. Our storied worlds have infinite possibilities as we explore different emotions: people are sad or happy in the stories, they are brave and scared, they seek adventure and like to come back home – usually to chocolate cake and tea. Increasingly soft toys are included as characters in our stories and different parts of the house and garden offer different physical spaces for us to play. His imaginative capacity is awe-inspiring.

When Charlie and I play I believe he is taking part in a genuine experience where he explores the boundaries between reality and fantasy, where his ideas are taken seriously and acted upon. He is central and powerful in his own development and can use play to explore his own curiosities and fascinations. He needs to express himself, to explore and make sense of his world, to make his own choices and decide when he wants to end the play and do something else. His story-telling and play is situated and meaningful, it draws on the everyday and the fantastic and shows the power of story for meaning-making in the life of a small child.

I am very lucky that Charlie at the moment accepts me as his play-partner. I try to be open to possibilities, to follow his interests and respond contingently when he indicates how he wants the play to go. And I also know that not all children are as committed to story as he is, my friend’s grand-daughter of the same age clearly feels at home in a drawing world. She uses drawing to interpret her world and encouraged by her artist grandmother will spend hours drawing and talking about her drawings, her stories come from her drawings. Other children are drawn to music and sound, still others to a tactile world as their preferred medium of interaction with the world of the senses. As individuals we all have unique interests, preferences, ways of feeling, thinking and doing – as adults interacting with young children I believe we need to follow their interests as well as offer new experiences.

The quality and content of the stories we share with young children matter, Charlie needs books, oral stories, theatre, film and play to provide meaningful and rewarding encounters with people, ideas and events. When I look at what many parents are buying for their children – the alphabet books, early readers, phonic instruction, ‘brain’ expanders etc I feel so sad – the current obsession with teaching children to decode simple print is depriving them of exactly what they need to become avid, enthusiastic readers – opportunities for immersion in rich story-telling.


  1. Marvellous, Sue. The most interesting thing for me was the part of Robin Hood not being the best at everything. It has been one of my conclusions in my thesis: if we want the reader to learn something from the story, in the sense that he can identify with the characters and understand them, they cannot be almighty and they cannot be totally evil either. We don't usually identify with characters who never make mistakes or fail, and we certainly don't identify with evil ones. If we don't identify or empathize, there's little we can obtain from the story. So, I think it is a very good job to explain to Charlie that Robin Hood was not the best at everything.

  2. As we say elsewhere, "Like". Absolutely right about the obsession with barking at print: the story comes first.