By Chris Connaughton
For me, working as an actor, writer and storyteller for primary school age children, one of the great delights and privileges of my job is to hear the gleeful hoots of laughter, the gasps of surprise, and to feel the sudden, thick silences of suspense and wonder during a performance. Then, afterwards, to listen in to the conversations my young audiences are having about what they have just experienced.
We hear a lot about narrower life experiences today, and the negative impact of too much screen time – which many see as stolen time from actual face-to-face contact and conversation which is so vital to a child’s oracy and language development.
Working in a Darlington school some years ago I was heartbroken to overhear the following conversation between two parents, one of whom was speaking about her 8 year old boy…
‘He had me in tears this morning,’ she said to her friend. ‘He sang Happy Birthday to me. All on his own. I didn’t even realise he knew the words.’
One of my immediate thoughts was, ‘if that family aren’t even singing Happy Birthday to each other, what other songs and stories is the boy missing out on?’
When we find ourselves in the position where you can bring up a child to the age of 8 without sharing one of the most basic, simple songs in the culture, where you can be surprised at the fact your child even knows such a song, then something has gone badly wrong with the way we communicate with our children. How tragic that so many opportunities for sharing the enjoyments of a story are being missed, or are not even thought about.
How has our attitude to our children’s oracy become so deadened? I feel we are in danger not only of denying our young people delightful, happy experiences through stories and songs, we are also closing doors of opportunity which might never be reopened. Opportunities for children to converse, learn new words and concepts, and to develop their own imaginations and creativity.
For sharing these songs, rhymes and fairy tales is key to learning how to speak. There is a reason behind the rhythm of a Nursery Rhyme, in the familiar repetition of ‘once upon a time’ or ‘I’ll huff and I’ll puff’ or ‘run, run as fast as you can,’ or ‘happily ever after’. They are MEANT to be shared, spoken aloud, joined in with.
A child who has a limited spoken vocabulary when s/he starts school has much less chance of catching up and keeping up throughout primary education and beyond. This becomes even more true when ideas about education are becoming narrower, offering pressured staff less time to devote to story, group singing, or performing out loud.
When these stories are not being told as much at home, places like The Hullabaloo in Darlington become even more important. I have been privileged to perform recently at this wonderful new theatre and creative space for young audiences. Hullabaloo have been at the forefront of developing and advocating theatre work for the young and very young for some time and are now able to host visiting companies and storytellers in their custom-built theatre as well as continuing to create their own work.
For our younger audiences stories are often their introduction to a much wider vocabulary not just of words but ideas and viewpoints. Stories offer chances to join in with a vocal response, a reply to a question, singing a song or repeating a phrase. I have found many times during my own performances that children are using words by the end of the story that they may not even have heard of at the beginning. The words are now understood through context and repetition. After a performance or story workshop I frequently have conversations with teachers which go along the lines of: ‘That is the first time I have seen that child with her hand up to answer a question,’ or “This child never joins in or offers an idea, but he did today,’ or ‘What she said about that character gave us a real insight into how she plays with others.’
Why does this happen? I think part of it has to do with the fact that stories offer that safe place of ‘otherness’. A place where it is alright to talk about feelings, ideas and opinions, because you’re not talking about yourself, you are talking about Rapunzel, or what happened to the youngest Billy Goat, or Harry Potter, or the Stark and Lannister families (yes, stories work like that for adults as well!)
Stories can be socially important in other ways too. Young audiences see how their neighbours are responding. They are subliminally picking up how we all react differently to humour, suspense, danger or love. If a new emotion, or challenging situation is presented, seeing the reaction of others can help to process what that situation means, how it affects others, and so help to clarify our own feelings and responses towards it.
So please, let’s give more time to stories and songs. Let’s build up our teachers’ skills, give them the confidence – and time – to perform, share, and inspire stories in our schools and nurseries. Let’s remind our parents, as much as we can, that not only is it a fun, fulfilling way of spending time with our children, it’s also helping to give them a more fun and fulfilling life when they are adults.
Chris Connaughton is a storyteller and actor with over 30 years’ experience in all forms of theatre, television and radio. Chris is Director and main performer at Intext Performance and has worked with Theatre Hullabaloo for many years. He now writes and produces work for young audiences as well as being the author of the ‘Beltheron’ series of fantasy novels for 9 year olds and upwards.