A cautionary tale: Helicopter stories

Written by: Trisha Lee | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The stories young children tell can open up a world of creativity, communication and development, while offering crucial insights to teachers. Trisha Lee explains the concept of helicopter stories

“Wolf eat daddy up. Wolf eat mummy up.
Wolf eat grandpa up. Rocket land on wolf.”

Chloe was four years and 10 months when she told me this story. She was in her first term of reception and I was lucky enough to be visiting her class regularly to run scribing and story-telling sessions.

Based on the work of Vivian Gussin Paley, “helicopter stories” are a simple but powerful approach for children aged two to seven. They tell their stories to an adult scribe who writes their words verbatim. Then each story is acted out by the class. If it is a one-word story, the child becomes that character. If it is a more developed narrative, that too is brought to life. Working in this way, every story is valued.

Chloe’s words awed me. As she finished her tale, I found myself wondering whether it was Mother Wolf who was the narrator, telling the story to her cubs to warn them of the consequences of eating humans – a cautionary tale for wolves.

If we look closer at this story we can see that Chloe has created a piece of micro-fiction worthy of any short-form story-writer. There’s the main character, the wolf. Then there’s the conflict, the wolf eats everyone. Finally, there’s a resolution. Justice is served.

Although the story is only four lines, it feels satisfyingly whole. It contains a story arch. There’s cause and effect, a beginning, and an end.

When we acted this story out, the wolf’s comeuppance was brought to life and we saw how Chloe had imagined it. She played the wolf. The story-teller always gets to choose which character they play and the rest of the cast is selected by taking turns around the stage.

As the child playing the rocket pretended to land on the wolf, Chloe made a dramatic exploding noise. She acted as if she was being blown apart, flying across the stage, before finally landing in a huddle on the floor. The audience clapped and that was the end of the wolf.


Making time to listen

In my time using story with children from across the world, I have scribed and seen the acting out of many thousands of stories. In every session, there is something that surprises me, makes me think, or demonstrates how intuitive this story-telling ability is.

Some children might not have found their words yet or they might lack a variety of experiences to draw from (children need to be exposed to a language-rich environment of poetry and stories to support their growth as story-tellers), but I also believe that deep inside each and every one of us is an innate story-telling ability. To discover this in our children we just have to make time to listen.

There are many types of stories children share during a session. And sometimes the story a child shares reveals their worries.


The lava monster

“There was a little girl called Alison. She went to the forest. She found a candy shop. She runned to it. She found a big giant candy. She stole it without buying it. She didn’t share it with anyone. She went into her bedroom and hid under her covers. She fell asleep before eating it all. Daddy found out. He put her on the timeout with a big lava monster.”

After Milly, 5, had dictated this story I found out that it was based on a true incident. A few weeks previously Milly had stolen a sweet from the local corner shop. She felt so guilty that she couldn’t eat it. That was how her dad found out – because she’d hidden it under her covers.

She’d been punished, she knew it was wrong, but in her story world, she still needed more. When we acted the story out, Milly played the big lava monster.

If Chloe’s story was a cautionary tale for wolves not to eat humans, the ferocity of Milly’s lava monster was an even greater warning to children not to take things that don’t belong to them. Milly’s monster growled and seethed and then just as the audience was about to clap, she pretended to eat up the child who was playing Alison. It was as if standing there on the stage, seeing her crime acted out, the monster inside Milly had demanded retribution.

Scribing and story-telling can be a great way of finding out what is going on for our children that we might not always be aware of.


The alien cat

“There was once a mean alien cat. The mean alien cat got a trophy. He got a silver trophy. More alien cats came to see him. And then the mean alien cat did horrible things to the other alien cats. They tried to make the mean alien cat say sorry. But he didn’t.”

As I scribed Benjii’s words I wondered if he was using the process to try to figure something out. Interestingly, during the acting out he didn’t play the mean alien cat. Benjii, 6, played one of the other cats trying to get an apology.

As I watched him, I could see the frustration on his face when the baddy didn’t say sorry. I could really see the injustice of this.

Benjii was often in trouble. He rarely got featured in the Good News Assembly and he never won anything.

Watching this story, gave us a window into his life, to the way that he saw things, to realise how unfairly the scales seemed to be tipped against him.

His teacher was able to pick up on this later and she supported him in a way she would never have been able to. Rather than a cautionary tale, Benjii’s story points to the unfairness of life and cautions us to be aware of it.


Teaching us about our pupils

Scribing and story-telling values children’s creativity and supports personal, social and emotional development. It can show teachers what matters to the children in their class as well as highlighting where they are with their language development.

For many of the children I have worked with, helicopter stories have been the gateway to literacy. Having their stories scribed and acted out demonstrates to children the power of the written word.

One of my favourite benefits will always be what it teaches us about the children in our care, allowing us to see the world through their eyes.

By playing and making up tales they are exploring the world in their own unique way, using one of the most effective tools available to them. By playing and having fun, children learn to communicate, to problem-solve, to think creatively, to grow in emotional intelligence. We have to make time for this. The story below was told to my colleague Isla Hill by a five-year-old pupil.

"Once upon a time, there was a child but not just a normal one a scary one. Whenever someone made her angry, she turned into something, it is a ... adult. A adult with power! And she destroyed the world!"

It is perhaps a cautionary tale for us all.

  • Trisha Lee founded the educational charity MakeBelieve Arts in 2002, which pioneers a story-telling curriculum. Trisha’s most recent book, The Growth of a Storyteller, examines the cognitive and developmental impact that this curriculum has on young children’s literacy, communication and confidence: https://helicopterstories.co.uk


Headteacher Update Autumn Edition 2022

This article first appeared in Headteacher Update’s Autumn Edition 2022. This edition was sent free of charge to every primary school in the country. A digital edition is also available via www.headteacher-update.com/digital-editions/


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