Community Engagement: Stories with Families

July 7, 2016

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Through Polka’s Community Engagement programme we have continued to deliver the Stories with Families project over the past year.

The project involves a series of storytelling and creative play workshops with children under 5 years and their parents, in four Merton Children’s Centres: Steers Mead, Newminster, Abbey and Steers Mead. The project now in its 5th year has been funded by Children in Need. Please see below an insight into one of the sessions written by Polka practitioner, Hannah Lefeuvre.

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It’s 10am, Saturday 18th June. The scene is set for our Stories with Families session. In the foyer, we have left a sign on the easel: ‘Welcome to Stories with Families. Today we are going on Safari [in response to their request to explore animals last week] – follow the footprints….’ As families arrive, they follow the animal print footprints down the corridor and into the main space. Here the pathway becomes circular insect mats, which the children eagerly follow, like stepping stones, out into the garden.

In the garden, we have hidden toy safari animals in and around the sandpit. Inside the tepee, coloured feathers and lollipop sticks are left to make parrot puppets. In a nearby builder’s tray, paints are provided to create hand print animals.

This is our third out four, in our second set of sessions at Steersmead Children’s Centre. Families are settling, getting to know each other and this initial arrival, making and play time in the garden, allows families to drift in gradually and settle comfortably.

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After sometime, once families have had a chance to sample the activities, I call the children over to the tarmac area. I have lined up the toy animals and tell the children that the animals are ‘ready to go in for a story.’ We follow the animals inside.

In the main family room, we have cleared back the toys and left rugs with cushions on in the centre. We have set up a washing line, on which their paintings and parrot puppets are pegged. We settle down to sleep, as the story begins. It is the story of Handa’s Surprise, a well-known, well-loved story, which, through a repeated pattern and rhythm, explores universal themes of friendship, generosity, surprises and journeys.

The story section seems to bring the families together and, although the story might be familiar to some, its familiarity is part of what unites us. We begin by waking up in the African sunshine, we create a huge basket [a large stretch of elastic] to place our fruit into, then chop and mix up an imaginary fruit salad and finally, a fruit smoothie. We proceed to make our way to the village, balancing baskets [cushions] on our heads.

Along the way, as each animal sweeps in to take its fruit, we enact that animal – children are swung up in air to represent monkeys, put up on shoulders to become tall giraffes and they eagerly and competently move around the floor as stomping elephants, galloping zebras and so on. A sock comes out of a bag as a puppet, representing each animal, something that La Baracca’s performance of L’Elefantino (The Little Elephant) inspired. The children know that each sock is a sock, but they want to communicate with the sock. They speak ‘Elephant’ and ‘Zebra’ and I translate.

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As Handa nears the village, a parrot drops its feathers in its plight to retrieve a tangy purple passion fruit. Coloured feathers are explored individually, blown up in the air and placed by the children in their parent’s hair.  We gather the feathers and a piece of fabric that allows us to play with them as a group. ‘This is such a nice activity!’ one of the children’s centre practitioners exclaims. Gradually, the children naturally settle in ‘sleepy shapes’ under the fabric. To complete, the story, ‘tangerines’ (Kinder egg interiors, filled with rice to become shakers) are distributed and gentle rhythms and sounds are played.

Finally, the children wash their hands and individual plates of tangerines and bananas are brought out for everyone to enjoy. The group is calm and during these last few minutes, we discuss how we found the session, talk about what we would like to do next week and give out notices of the final project sharing and monthly storytelling at Polka.

With more time, it would be lovely to build on the group’s ownership of the session, with the families contributing more ideas and building stories together. It has lovely to have a good number of Dads and/or both parents attending these sessions, which is partly down to the timing of the session and potentially as a result of the legacy that this project has, from its beginnings as a Dad’s project.

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Staff at the centre have been hugely supportive to the project and this made a vast difference to everyone’s experience. One practitioner trying out some of the ideas in her other sessions during the week and spreading enthusiasm about the project among the staff.

In just a few sessions, we have seen families come on ‘leaps and bounds’, particularly in the story section. Physically, the children have become more explorative and inventive – jumping, rolling, creating interesting shapes and picking up on cues (including musical cues). Socially, families have bonded as a group and, it might be coincidence and/or the children’s familiarity with us as practitioners, but I began to notice more language being used by children each week.

Next week the group has requested that we explore the theme of outer space, including the moon olympics. I look forward to that!

Hannah Lefeuvre – 19/06/2016

The Stories with Families project concludes this Saturday 9th July 2016 with a celebration at Polka for the families who have participated in this project across all four children’s centres.