Ingredients: A Wooden spoon and paint; an adult and child; a group of children

The Big Sell: Three ideas for child-led play: the Listening Stick, Special Time, the Helicopter Drama technique

1)     The Listening Stick

Commonly used in schools, I believe, you paint a wooden spoon in an interesting design so that it becomes a Listening Stick, and use it during circle time. The idea is only the person holding the Listening Stick can talk and everyone else must listen. When the person has finished what they want to say, others can raise their hand to ask for the Listening Stick. A powerful tool for learning the skills of focused listening and choosing your words with care. A good tool to be used during mediation or when learning how to give and receive critical feedback. Use it at home if the kids are squabbling frequently and frustrations are escalating to the extent that no one feels listened to.

2)    One to one Special Time

This one is a gift from my parents who have always given both my children ‘Special Time’ when they look after them each week. It sounds deceptively simple but is incredibly powerful. The adult / carer reserves a chunk of time to listen to one child and play / do / discuss exactly what they wish. No tricks, no distractions, no bribes. Just listening and play. See this website for more information:

http://www.onespace.org.uk/behavior/special-time

For my youngest son (now 2 and a half) this is often when he chooses to take his Grandfather out on the kind of meandering exploratory walk around the quiet streets where they live, that I seldom have time to indulge when I’m rushing about on the school run. He will explore every stone, stick, hedge and hidey-hole and come back tired yet refreshed and relaxed. The potency comes from the child being given absolute control and knowing that the adult with them loves them and wants to listen to their choices.

I know this one is hard when you have more than two children and are on your own. It was something I was aware my first born needed more than ever when his new baby brother came along, and yet I was exhausted. My solution was two-fold – I used the baby’s nap times to give him as much Special Time as I could manage, and I asked other caring adults to step in and offer him that one to one whenever they could. I was very lucky to have this support system, and I know not everyone has family nearby. If not, why not share the load with trusted friends by giving Special Time to their kids or asking them to babysit siblings so you can give Special Time to one of yours?

3)    The Helicopter Drama Technique

This requires a group of children to be seated in a circle or can be conducted one to one first and then the children are brought together. One child is picked each time – the teacher listens to them tell a story and writes it down word for word. The child can then pick the role of their choice within their story and the teacher can ask other children within the circle to help act it out. Throughout the drama the child can be asked to contribute to the direction to make sure the story is played out as they anticipated. Again, it sounds simple but the children soon cherish the privilege of being director of their own script supported by friends.  This idea can be taken to grand conclusions – for instance the work of the charity Scene and Heard who bring together children with professional actors to produce exciting new plays. Look at these sites for more information:

http://www.makebelievearts.co.uk/Helicopter

http://sceneandheard.org/about_ouraims.html

The Verdict: Childhood needs moments, supported by caring adults, whereby one develops a sense of being unique, of being a creative actor with one’s own choices and voice. You may have heard that the government is extending the “five a day” healthy eating programme to “five a day parenting recommendations” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/joepublic/2011/aug/04/parenting-tips-five-a-day),which encompass reading, listening, playing, talking. It’s all sounds so obvious but I think if we are honest we all have days when we think “What I actually do with my kids today?”

I feel if you start with small ideas such as those above, you quickly learn that a little bit of quality time goes a long way in providing your child with the creative tools and confidence to grow sturdy, well nourished imaginations. Fifteen minutes of Special Time in one day can equate to the rest of their play feeling empowered, inspired and valued.

This summer we were struck down by a run of illness and had little money, so there were no expensive trips out, very few play dates and definitely no holiday on the cards. I fell back on these kinds of activities instead and guess what … I’ve never seen my kids so relaxed, smiley and playing together so well, enjoying all their toys!

Catchphrase: “Now … I’m ready to listen. This is your time. What do you want to say?”

Left wanting more?

When you are rushed off your feet, you can draw on skills they have refined using the above tools, and say “You remember the game you wanted to play in Special Time / talked about with the Listening Stick / wrote in your Helicopter Drama session? Why don’t go and rehearse the next stage in the story upstairs for 20 minutes, and when I’ve finished what I’m doing / my phone call / this email, I will be your audience!”

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