This is the conversation between two boys, one four and one four and a half. I sat outside their arena of play and wrote like crazy because they barely paused for a second. It felt like being at the theatre as the script and the plot unravelled as fast as i could write! Once again, it makes me appreciate the beauty and complexities of creating and adjusting one’s working theories, not to mention their incredible mental agility and flexibility when it came to accepting ‘offers’ and rolling with them. Here is the whole exchange as well as I could manage it. .There are not many photos as I really did not want to intrude on their play. Their props were absolutely minimal.. just the two jars and some wooden blocks and a plastic dinosaur and elephant. The next day, when I glued the words into their portfolios, the opportunity arose to read it to them. They clearly were surprised but delighted and nodded in agreement at specific points as they listened with great interest. E suggested a replay of the game and I proposed that maybe they could swap roles this time. This they then proceeded to do. I played the role of mother, taking notes under the guise of also writing a shopping list! This time is was G who could (just!) reach the high shelf, and E who asked if he could eat the apple. G gave immediate permission and I howled in protest, ‘Noooooo!’ which delighted them both and E proceeded to ‘gobble’ it down and then asked me to write ‘one million apples’ on my shopping list!
I have never cared for the personality and the life approach of the little red hen, so I rewrote the story. Here it is.
Once upon a time, there was a little red hen who lived in a farm yard along with a dog, and a cat and a duck.
And a lot more animals lived there besides those four but this story is about them. Well, the little red hen was always very busy, scritching and scratching with her sharp little claws, looking for food, tidying the barn and generally keeping an eye on things. One day she found something very exciting… it was a whole pile of wheat grain that must have slipped out of the farmer’s bucket when she was feeding the other animals.
The little red hen knew a thing or two and she knew that now, in springtime, was the very best time to plant wheat, and that it would grow tall and every grain would produce a plant and every plant would have twenty or thirty more grains of wheat growing at the top. She decided to plant the grains.
She asked Cat and Dog and Duck if they would like to help her to plant the wheat. Cat was sunbathing and was stretched out in the warm sun. “No, I don’t want to help. I am lying in the sun and it doesn’t sound like fun”. Dog was lying in the sun as well and said,” No, it sounds rather boring and I’d rather lie here snoring” and Duck just floated on the pond and said nothing at all.
So the little red hen sighed and started to walk to the field with her basket of grain, when she heard a little voice saying “I’ll help!” and she looked round and there was a small blue mouse, with quivering whiskers and bright eyes, and he said’ I like to help and I’ve never planted wheat. I’ll help you”.
And so down to the field they went, carrying the basket together. Little Red Hen dug the rows with her clever little feet, scritch scratch, scritch scratch.. and the blue mouse dropped the grains in one by one till two long rows had been planted. The little red hen scratched the mounds of dirt back over the ditch with the grains lying in it, and they went off to the river for some water to water the grains with. They managed to pull up one bucket of water and carefully spilled a little for each grain of wheat but it only did one row, so they had to go back for more.
What with all their tugging and pulling and spilling the first time, the bank was quite muddy and slippery and just as they were pulling the bucket out, they both fell in! Splash and splish! Neither of them could swim and they thrashed about in some alarm , wondering if they would get swept out to sea or even if they might drown, when suddenly they hit a big branch that had fallen over the stream and they were able to scramble to the bank and dry off in the sun.
When they were dry, the Little Red Hen turned to Mouse and said’ You know Mouse, I think that was very scary but it was also a little bit exciting and I think that if I practised every day, I could get quite good at swimming”. And so it was that every day when they watered the wheat, they also had a practice swim. Sometimes, Mouse would swim a little too, but mostly he ran along the bank, shouting encouragement and sometimes he would ride on the little red hen’s back.
And so, when the summer had passed and autumn was beginning and the autumn leaves were starting to turn rusty gold, the wheat was ready to be harvested and Little Red Hen had learned how to swim.
Now it was time to take the wheat to the miller at the windmill and so Little Red Hen called out to her farmyard companions, Cat and Dog and Duck, to ask if they would like to help. Cat was washing herself in the sun, and said, ‘No, I need to keep myself fresh and clean, I’m too busy, I’m just not keen’ and Dog growled out. ‘ I’ve got a bone to chew and then to bury, I haven’t got time to carry and ferry”, and Duck just floated on the pond and said nothing at all.
Little Red Hen was setting off for the windmill with her heavy sack of grain, when she heard a cheerful little voice saying ‘I’ll help. I’ve never been to the windmill, and I’ve never seen wheat being ground into flour. Can I come?’ “ You certainly can’ said the little red hen, “ and thank you”. So off they went, dragging the heavy sack of grain between them.
Well, the mill was very exciting with its big sails whirling around and around. The miller showed them the big stones that lay on top of each other and explained how the wheat was crushed to flour between them.
Then he offered to show them the big blades of the sails.. and so they climbed up and up the stairs right up the middle of the mill till they came to a little door with a balcony on which they could stand and see the sails whooshing slowly and grandly past.. whooompf, whoompf… it was a wonderful sight, and then the miller said something truly wonderful. He told them that the had a little abseiling harness just the right size for the mouse and a small basket that could be attached to a sail, and if the mouse would like he could get himself strapped in and see how it felt to fly! Goodness, the mouse’s whiskers were shivering with excitement. ‘I would love to fly!’ and so the miller stopped the blades and the mouse got into his harness, and then they started the sails spinning again, and wheee! around went the mouse. The little red hen stood on the balcony and waved at Mouse as he went by… whooooosh, whoooosh!.. oh me, oh my, you could hear the little shrieks of delight from Mouse every time he sailed past!
And so eventually the job was done, the grains were ground, and the little red hen and the blue mouse set off home again.
Finally it was time to bake the bread and to do this, they needed heat. Little Red hen planned to use a camp oven to cook her bread, and so they needed to make a big fire and when it had all burned down to hot embers, the bread could go into the camp oven which was like a bit cast iron pot with a lid, and it could rest over the embers on a little grill.
Little Red Hen called out to Cat and Dog and Duck to ask if they would like to help cook the bread and make the fire, but Cat said, ‘Oh no, I have been washing myself all afternoon, I will need to take a nap very very soon. Sorry, no thanks” and Dog said, “ Chasing sticks can be a lot of fun for a dog, but gathering them for a fire sounds like a bit of a slog. Sorry, no thanks.” And Duck just floated on the pond and said nothing at all.
So the little red hen and the blue mouse ( of course! He never liked to miss out on any adventure) gathered dry pine cones, and twigs and larger twigs and small branches and stacked them up like a tepee just so, and then the farmer’s wife came and lit it with a match, and the Little Red Hen and the mouse told stories and sang songs and played with sparklers making patterns in the evening darkness, while they waited for it to die down and then they cooked the bread.
When it was crusty and brown and done to a turn, the Little Red Hen put it on a picnic cloth and fetched butter and knives and called out to Cat and Dog and Duck, “Who would like to help me to eat the bread?’ and all three of them shouted out,”Me, me, I would , I would like to help you eat the bread, yes please!!”
And the Little Red Hen looked at them and thought how they had not helped at all with all the hard work, and she said, “Well, you old sillies, you missed out on swimming and you missed out on flying and you missed out on bonfires and sparklers! So you had better not miss out on yummy homemade bread. Come on , you lazy scallywags!” and so they all shared the loaf of bread together.
I like this story much better than the original, and the children adored the flying mouse and the excitement of it, and i like to think that the message of the story is that working together and making fun out of work is an appealing and joyful goal, and less based on the gooody good puritan work ethic. Community working bees are sometimes the best community times of all, and I could never bring myself to tell the original with her po-faced self righteous approach, eating her bread in solitary priggish splendour! This is more in the spirit of the prodigal son. He probably got the lesson too.
David Sewell writes about the four A’s of intuitive storytelling and I am beginning more and more to understand what he is talking about. He refers to Attention, Affection, Approach and Allow. At the recent workshop on empathy and toddlers, we finished with a story… and I produced a basket of random props .
Together we selected some characters which we were drawn to… mostly ones that I was drawn to but the other women also contributed, and they also helped name the characters. I threw my scarf over my knees and announced that it was a mountain with a volcano at the top and the bottom was the river, on the banks of which lived our main protagonists.
There was a girl who was named (Leonie?) and she had a pet chicken and they liked to row on the river in their boat and talk about the important things of life. The mother stood on one of the banks with an empty cooking pot.
Having chosen the characters, one now has to invest them with significance and detail, such as names, strengths, challenges and favourite activities. One can also find oneself drawn to explain the key idea of the story and respond with affection and acceptance to whatever arises most prominently in one’s vision or in one’s imagination ( or which a child offers as an idea).
There were two more characters or items that drew our affectionate attention and which we accepted with confidence and conviction. There was a lion who lived at the top of the volcano and who guarded a chest with something within.
The plot of the story was that the volcano kept erupting and destroying the crops of the people who lived below. I told the listeners that the contents of the chest were reputed to have great magical powers and asked if they knew what it could do? Someone suggested that it meant you could live for ever ( and I apologise for not accepting or attending to it appropriately!). Instead I said ‘How ghastly’, and they immediately changed it to ‘You would always have enough to eat’, which was a great offer since we had already established that currently they did not. (Also stories seem to work best when you stay as much within the realm of the reasonable….. castles made of jelly, although fun, usually end you up in a great deal of bother and tricky detail which, although clever, tends to lose the children, or overexcite them).
So now the scene is set, the characters are named, the dilemma is articulated: hunger… and the goal has been identified: to try and get to the chest.
So we have worked with the first three A’s that David Sewell mentions. We had attended to various options, been affectionate and accepting of them ( apart from living forever!) and we have approached… we are now right in the thick of the story, in a boat on the river, poised for the plot to unfold. This is what he calls allowing. He also says that Aboriginal people believe that stories are like sorts of ghosts who want to be ‘told’ and if you don’t tell it, they have to wander off until they can find someone willing to ‘tell ‘ them.
So, it transpired that Leonie, the girl, and Cluck, the chicken, decided to explore the volcano and have an adventure. As they approached the peak of the mountain, they talked about trying to get into the chest. They got scared, they reassured each other, and empathised with each other’s nervousness. It turned out that Chuck had a plan which she explained to Leonie ( and to me, because until that second I did not know either!). It would have been truer to the archetypal story if they had met a fifth character who needed some sort of help that Leonie and Chuck could provide and then that character might have endowed Chuck with the brilliant idea… you know the principle of the wise helper who ‘tests’ your humanity and offers an unexpected gift in exchange? )
She would fly over the lion and lay an egg mid air… (this is the story now telling itself… I simply opened my mouth as Cluck, and that is what she said! I was all admiration! She pointed out, with my help, that laying an egg in midair is very hard because you can’t push against the ground with your feet while you push the egg out).
She flew off to distract the lion with this scheme and achieved great aim and once again, I was surprised by the story because the lion immediately transformed into a big wuss and lay on his side, and whined for his mother, “Mum, mum, there’s egg in my hair , oh yukky yukky’.
This was handy as it gave Leonie time to rush in and extract the treasure. It was a round red felted ball.. They ran off down the mountain, and I have no idea what will happen next… the story is telling itself and it did again.
Leonie (me) failed to have a good grip with her little china hands and dropped the ball which rolled over my knee and fell into the river.
Suddenly I could see where the story wanted to go… the red ball hit the water with a resounding ‘hissss’ as its fiery heat was extinguished. And do you know what this meant? Yes, the women listeners did… it was the seed heart of the volcano which had been extinguished and it would never erupt again, and the crops were never ruined again and they always had enough to eat! I mean how tidy is that for an ending!!? Brilliant in my view… and it was absolutely to do with allowing.,.. if I had tried too hard, I would probably have gotten myself into a knot and a stuck place…. but instead it fell into place.. ..literally. And of course, they made friends with the lion who came and lived with them and told wonderful scary bedtime stories to Leonie and Chuck, about the volcano that was no more. (You can see my hand trying to get the ( now deceased ) ball out of sight!!)
Post script: in many ways, I suppose this is called improvisation, and/but it is a very mysterious process. I took part in a storytelling improv weekly class last year and it is similar. It has to do with playfulness, trust and a willingness to take risks… but as David Sewell illuminates, ultimately the biggest challenge ( or the most important part) is possibly ‘allowing’. We want to maintain control, we are self-conscious and so we lose the juice of the whole affair. Do you also see how this style of story telling is so very similar to what children do when they play with their toys ? And how, if they have loose parts to play with, they happily improvise and include them in the plot, and use all the wonderful language, ideas, concepts, knowledge, working theories, and cultural capital that they have in their hearts, minds and imaginations as they are going along, never worrying about how it will all turn out…!! in the same way that they play in the sandpit or do a painting… which is why their paintings are often so brilliant!!
One of the key maxims of the improv class was that ‘gold was discovered, not invented’, meaning you don’t have to bust your gut making up stuff…it just allow it to unravel and let it be discovered. If the Aboriginal people are right, it is dead keen to be discovered!
Here is the link on which you can find long articles on the first two A’s and the third two are also there if you dig around! I got a bit tired just putting up this article! boy, it’s a mission. First you have to compress your photos and then you find they are too small and fuzzy but it is too late, cos your photographer has gone home!! and you can’t take more! http://thewonderofchildhood.com/2011/02/sparkle-stories/ and this link takes you to two longer articles about the two A’s… http://thewonderofchildhood.com/tag/storytelling-in-waldorf/