Drama versus Storytelling – what’s the difference in early years?

When Earlyarts offered me the chance to write a guest blog, the suggestion was that I might highlight an aspect of the way theatre and role play can help bridge divisions in the lives of young children, and I had a sudden realisation.  I cannot remember when I last talked about either ‘theatre’ or ‘role-play’ in an early years setting.  Even ‘drama’, which is after all what I studied, and what I am trained to do, seldom gets a mention.  It got me to wondering why this is.

For a few years now, I think I have most often described my own practice in Early Years as ‘story-making’.  Practitioners will usually introduce me as a story-maker, or often indeed a story-teller, [which embarrasses me – I am so bad at remembering ‘real’ stories] perhaps most often of all simply as ‘the story man’, or ‘the man with the box’.  This can sometimes get picked up by children but generally they will just call me Peter.  Or in fact, very often these days, ‘Pizza’.  That’s another thing – when did Peter become such an unusual name to children?

So why the coyness about calling it drama, when that remains the most accurate description of what we do?   Perhaps it has a bit to do with the fact that performance is still the thing that leaps to mind when drama is mentioned, and often that or other elements of theatre seem or sound too sophisticated for the very young.  I know also that many adults get a chill of anxiety when they even hear the word drama, the sense that they may be called upon to do something potentially embarrassing. 

Also it is probably in part my own anxiety that drama will not be seen as a valuable activity, in these days of accounting for the value of every moment, whereas stories are clearly benign, and crucially linked in people’s minds with the holy grails of reading and writing.   Sometimes it has even been that drama is seen as disruptive, too chaotic or noisy.

If perhaps I describe what I do, maybe you could tell me what you think I should be calling it.

There is quite a range of ways I might be involved in working in an early years setting, but very often they have at their core an approach that goes like this.  I will be a little in role, as a kind of slightly more hopeless version of myself, always forgetting things, especially words, and needing quite a bit of help from the children.  Usually I have some specific problem that requires their help – I have lost something, my story book is empty, I have had a mysterious message to come there, etc.  I often have my lovely old box with random objects in it, or quite often these days we go outside to look for things that might help us make our new story.  Then the story develops from Peter’s need and the children’s ideas.

The process of story-making is a really golden activity, for a number of reasons.  Many of them were beautifully set out in Daniela’s February Blog here, in relation to the telling of existing stories – their role as exercise for the imagination muscle, and food for the soul, the place of stories perched between reality and imagination.  When the stories are springing new from children as we go, one of the beauties of that process is that there are no right answers.  Here is an exchange I have with a child, as we make up a tale based on a twig we found outside which she thinks looks like a crocodile’s hat..

“What colour is the crocodile?”  “Pink and purple”.  “Fantastic” “and what does she eat?” “Pizza and apples”, “Together?”  “Yes, she puts the apples on the pizza and snap-snaps them”

So much more fun than the version I might feel bound to if I were teaching about animals of the jungle…  “Well, no, not pink… crocodiles are green, aren’t they?”

The next stage may well be to act out the story, adding extra details and episodes as we go.  Looking for chances to be active, to use objects as puppets, to get children into roles, to make up a little song and sing, or dance, with a little bit of my mind working on structuring the story as we go, so that when we have finished playing it out, we can sit around and retell it.

The truth is that when someone comes in and sees this kind of process going on, it is often quite chaotic.  We are sometimes charging around, sometimes very still and concentrated but at others very frantic and even a little uncontrolled.  I do retain the ability to bring things back, but actually the freedom from an adult-imposed structure is sometimes crucial in allowing real imaginative flow. I am rolling on the floor, or have three children climbing up me.  What it most resembles is children at play on their own in a bit of space. 

And I think perhaps this is the key to my problem.  Drama is actually an activity that children do anyway.  The origins of plays and playing are one and the same.  For very young children, role play and acting out are one of the key ways of making sense of the world.   So what I actually do is play with children.  There is a flexible structure there, I hope I am ‘scaffolding’ their play in useful ways, and safeguarding the ideas of the quieter children, and encouraging, reinforcing, questioning and developing.  But I know that what it looks like is just a man playing with children.

So can you help me?   Should I be saying, can I come in and play with your children?  We know that there is value simply in being a male presence in an early years setting, perhaps I should be happy simply to emphasise that.  One of my favourite quotes from Reggio’s Loris Malaguzzi was his description of the role of the artist as , “every child should have a crazy uncle”.  I can really identify with that.  But, on a business card, a leaflet or a website, ‘Man Who Plays with Children’, and ‘Crazy Uncle’ both have drawbacks.  So would you like a drama worker in your setting, or a role-player, or a story-maker, or a funny man with a box?  We all do the same thing, really.

Peter Wynne-Willson is a Birmingham-based Drama Worker, theatre writer and director, specialising in work for young audiences.  Over the last ten years, since being the drama worker on the ground-breaking Moonbeams projects,  he has also spent a great deal of his time in working with children inEarly Years, Foundation Stage and Key Stage One.  Whatever you call it, he loves doing it, so is always pleased to be asked to visit.