Using Old Technology to Capture Our Children's Stories

Anyone as old as me will remember the low-tech cassette tape recorders we used to use to help children record stories and songs – they seemed to evolve into karaoke machines for kids at one point before they sadly disappeared from most shops. There seems to be an accepted belief by toy retailers that kids are only in to the more high-tech gadgets now, including rather expensive HD video recorders and mobile phones. It's great that younger children have access to an increasing amount of high-tech equipment now – but interestingly I've seen a lot of younger children usng this equipment to role play being grown-ups rather than the uses for which they were originally designed.

However, I'm interested in where the old-tech / low-tech machines went because I, for one, still think there's a lot of mileage in those bulky old tape recorders with big handles. Their chunky buttons meant that even the smallest of fingers could control them, relishing the ability to turn the music on and off repeatedly for hours, with a satisfying click on each button push. Then there was the trick of trying to put cassettes the right way round in the holder, which frankly was on a par with climbing Mount Everest for a three year old, and so much more exciting than the standard shapes sorter in the maths corner. Not to mention being able to explore how excitingly long and slinky the tape was when pulled further, and further, and further out of the cassette....

American Early Childhood teacher, Vivian Gussin Paley, promoted the use of this basic technology as a core tool of her work in helping children record, understand and share their worlds, and to do so in a way that is entirely accurate and authentic to the child whose story it is. Her approach is to encourage storytelling as a way of capturing important experiences that enhance relationships between children, or between children and adults. In her wonderful book, The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter, she talks about the importance of the stories children tell through play, showing how children often express deep and significant ideas and feelings through their play and story-telling. An important aspect of this approach is that the stories, and the meanings behind them, are 'owned' by the children themselves and not subject to adult translation and potential misunderstanding.

Paley says, 'A day without storytelling is, for me, a disconnected day. The children at least have their play, but I cannot remember what is real to the children without their stories to anchor fantasy and purpose.' With each story... 'I am a step closer to my vision of connecting everything that happens in this nursery school classroom. My habit of drawing invisible lines between the children's images is, I think, the best thing I do as a teacher.'

I have a theory that there's something so beautifully simple and authentic about audio recordings that may have got lost in the drive towards video and photographic equipment for kids. These are also great tools for learning and play, but there's something about the fact that the processors for sounds and visual images reside in different parts of the brain that I think is really important. So when you're focussing on audio only (a bit like reading), it opens up a whole plethora of imaginary worlds in your visual receptors, that aren't accessible when you're also presented with a visual image already, whether still or animated.

Whilst we're all subject to an on-going assault on our senses of visual and multimedia imagery, I've been interested in how simple, audio techniques can help children make sense of their worlds in a profound way. We know that the auditory cortex is one of the earliest developed areas of a baby's brain starting with sounds heard and formed within the womb, and gradually developing into language formation after birth. Research Manager for Youth Music, Dr Douglas Lonie, in his Early Years Evidence Review (2010 - p13), suggests that music-making in early childhood can develop the perception of different phonemes and the auditory cortex and hence aid the development of language learning.

I decided to test out my theory by talking recently to a Manchester based Mum whose five year old son frequently uses audio recorders to document his amazing stories. She told me:

'He loves to make recordings of his own voice and will test out different sounds when he's in control of the voice record app on my phone. Following his recent visit to

Skipton Castle, we couldn't shut him up about it - he'd already been going 10 minutes before I pulled my phone out, and carried on another 10 minutes afterwards!'

I asked his Mum how she came to discover that storytelling and documenting was a useful way of helping him express his emotions and feelings. She replied;

'He's always been very skilled with electronic things, to the extent that sometimes it gets a bit obsessive. So we were trying to think of a creative way to help him talk to us using the things that interest him the most, and this has been a brilliant way to do it. It means we have a good understanding of what's going on in his world, as well as getting some great stories at bedtime.'

Listen to a short clip of her son's adventure at Skipton Castle here, and catch his wonderful description of how a 'metaphor is a secret archway!'...

I spotted that this mum presented an excellent example of the right sort of scaffolding – open ended questions that showed a genuine engagement but were not too leading. I asked if she had undertaken any training for this:

'Not specifically to help with my son's learning, but ironically, it's the training I have done for my professional work in Leadership Coaching, NLP and evaluation techniques, that has really helped. I do a fair bit of research in the early years field, so I have some experience of enquiry based approaches, but what I have learned from my professional training about Active Learning has really helped. I tend to use a lot of 'reflecting back' techniques to check I'm understanding what he's telling me, and also I try to 'hold the space' for him so as not to break his flow.'

Finally, I asked our mum what she thought of my theory of whether young children could benefit more from opportunities to use audio-only technology for storytelling. Her response was a resounding 'Yes!'

'It works for us because it gives my son a clear focus for his stories, a sense of ownership, pride, and belonging as he shares his experience and I am able to respond positively and share it with him. That's so important for me as a mum trying to navigate the difficult world of bringing up a youngster, and gives us both so much pleasure. Multi-media approaches sometimes can't do this because they cause so much distraction from having a simple, two-way, conversation.'

Author Ruth Churchill Dower is the Director of Earlyarts