The power of suggestion

Mapping the emergence of story making in the woods – the connections between stories and between story-tellers – I’m struck by the generative power of Greg’s first narratives.  They were told clearly and excitedly, with a smile of someone who has found his voice and is being listened to (and who is about to say something scary!).  But just as significantly, they were open generous stories, by which I mean they invited and inspired others to join in.  In fact many of the children picked up specific phrases or important words form Greg’s stories to start their own.

Here is Greg’s first story again (told after we heard Ruby’s stories about being lost and found, and picking up some of her interest in danger):

Someone went to the woods in the night – called Greg – and he saw a shadow in the woods, and then he saw a skeleton.”

Several children had asked what the woods were like at night (many of them think I live there).  Fred asked me if there were “loads of bats and owls”, Harry asked if I slept in the woods. The class had also been exploring ‘light and dark’ at the nursery school quite recently – so the group interest in night-time was a live one.

But by making his story happen at night, Greg also gave it some of the suggestive qualities that have inspired so much imaginative play in the park, around the old log and the hole in the tree.  His story is clear and short (in the same way that the log and hole are clearly defined and noticeable), but the night and its darkness, like the unknown or ambiguous aspects of the environment, mean you can’t necessarily tell what things are.  The shadow is brilliant – it could be any number of things, and what is a shadow anyway, when you stop to think about it…you can see it but you can’t feel it, you can move it but not catch it.  And if you don’t know for sure what things are, you have an open invitation to imagine

In Greg’s first story he sees a shadow, then a skeleton.  In his second the shadow has already changed and found a home ‘in the bushes’ (where curiously you wouldn’t be able to see it – this shadow seems to be becoming quite physical).  Ruby, who told the first stories, has been invited in too:

Once upon a time Ruby and me went out in the woods in the night and we saw a shadow in the bushes and it was a dinosaur. And we ran away as fast as we could and the dinosaur didn’t know, so we pressed the button – and we went home.

And the dinosaur smashed the window, and we went under my cover and the dinosaur couldn’t find us so he went back to the bush in the wood.”  

Greg particularly enjoyed telling us about the dinosaur smashing the window! – his story is still about danger and safety, a great narrative of pursuit and escape, with the wild danger coming right up to his house this time.   But there’s an even safer place to hide than home; the intimate, real, and invented world of ‘under the covers’.  A child’s world.

When we hear this second story at the beginning of the next session Ruby immediately wants to tell another.  It’s amazing how her original stories about being lost/finding her parents/loving the woods and her friends, meet and play with Greg’s words and suggestions, then come back to their own familiar ending:

“Once upon a time there was a little girl called Ruby and she went for a walk in the woods.  She saw a shadow and it was in the bushes coming out and it was a big dinosaur, and she ran and ran through the woods – she needed to find her way home.

She was lost in the woods, but she saw something in the bushes. It was her mummy.”

From Greg and Ruby’s first stories there have been all sorts of beginnings, middles, and ends, that other children have found and made their own (see next blog).  It’s interesting in this context to think about what we value in children’s creativity and self-expression.  In a couple of recent nursery projects I’ve come across a belief that “if you ask children to talk together they just copy each other”, and a corresponding over-emphasis on individual work and separate observation and assessment.  What is striking in the woods storytelling is how important it is to be in a group, how copying can be a fantastic way of starting something new –  imitation and imagination go hand in hand, and develop together.

Vivian Gussin Paley has written brilliantly about how the classroom community is built above all by the stories, vocabularies, and imagined worlds that children and educators share together (for example in “The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter”).   Children’s stories are full of invitations: invitations to stop and listen, to step into an imagined world you didn’t know about before; invitations to other children to join and carry on making that world; invitations to the world to be re-made and tested and understood.  Yes, there is great similarity, and all this implies in terms of shared culture and social identity for the children who tell stories together, but there are also subtle and striking individual differences, that are well worth listening for.

James also wanted to tell a story after we listened to Greg and Ruby’s stories,  and there are elements of both in his new version:

“Once upon a time there was a mummy and a little boy called James.  And they went into the woods, and they saw a shadow.  It was something out of the bushes.  It was a dinosaur.  And they found a pointy stick and they made a big hole.  And then they put him in it, and they put it all over him.  And then he was gone.  And we never found him.” 

And now there’s something new ; there’s not running away, there’s fighting danger, and there’s the importance of a definite ending…


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