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Helicopter Stories can Boost Speaking and Listening Skills in your Early Years Setting

Under 5s are the real experts in the Early Years classroom, says Trisha Lee...

  • Helicopter Stories can Boost Speaking and Listening Skills in your Early Years Setting

“Once upon a time there was a little girl who was gone all over the place, gone to China. And a monster came to China and he was stamping around all over the world. And the big monster did jump all the way to Antarctica and he was freezing cold. And he jumped into Indonesia, and he jumped all the way to Canada.”
– Alex, aged 3

Alex’s story was told to my colleague, Isla, on a normal Helicopter Stories day in a private, voluntary and independent setting (PVI) in Havering.

The three-year-old was delighted to be dictating his story and looked in different directions as he spoke, as if tracking the monster’s journey in his mind.

The adults in the room were surprised. Somehow Alex had acquired the names of countries he had never visited, and information on each, such as the fact that Antarctica is freezing.

Even his mother wasn’t sure where the information came from, but perhaps through something he’d watched or something he’d heard, Alex had made the connections and demonstrated that in his story.

Through scribing and leading the class in acting Alex’s story out, the practitioners in Havering learned something new about this three-year-old: they discovered his expertise.

And there is great potential for this to be develop; how wonderful it would be to show him pictures of other countries, or objects from around the world, to enable him to explore the tastes and flavours of these different places for example? 

Meanwhile, in another nursery, I was told a story by a 3-year-old Polish boy, who spoke very little English.

His story was simple, “Dinosaur, raaah.” When we came to act the story out, I asked him to show me how the dinosaur moved. I expected him to run around the stage roaring loudly. The boy surprised me.

He formed each hand into three talons, held his arms close to his body so they seemed shorter than normal, and turning his neck from side to side, looked around him out of menacing eyes. I knew immediately that he was a Tyrannosaurus, and when I said the word he nodded at me, with a big smile on his face.

Again, we learned so much about the child, his passions, what interested him and his own type of expertise. This child might not have been able to communicate the depth of his knowledge through language, but one look at the detail contained in his acting out, and I could see the intricate knowledge he had about his specialist subject.

This is the strength of Helicopter Stories. It allows us to tap into the world of the child in a way that nothing else does. Through using the approach on a regular basis, we can see, and value, the expertise in the children we work with and discover the unique way they see the world.

In theory, Helicopter Stories is a simple approach. The teacher or workshop leader scribes the children’s stories, word-for-word, and then the class comes together to act them out. The equipment needed is minimal: a roll of masking tape, several sheets of A5 paper, a pen and a practitioner who is curious to uncover the dexterity of children’s imaginations.

In action, it is a highly effective learning strategy.

For the children, they get the chance to share something that is of huge importance to them; their story, developing their speaking and listening skills as they pay attention, and respond to each story from their class.

By having their words scribed verbatim, they make the connection between the spoken and the written word, and as an inclusive, whole-class approach, every contribution is valued.

Scribing a story for a child, and supporting them to act it out, always seems like a great privilege, for it is an invitation to an adult, to step back into the enchanted place, the one that only children inhabit.


Trisha Lee is the artistic director and founder of MakeBelieve Arts, a theatre and education charity for early years and primary schools.

To find out more about Helicopter Stories, Trisha Lee’s latest book Princesses, Dragons and Helicopter Stories is available to purchase here and on the MakeBelieve Arts website here. Follow Trisha on Twitter at @TrishaLeeMBA.

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