Teaching and learning

Once upon a helicopter story

Boost creativity, imagination and emotional skills with pen and paper
Children and adult flying a paper plane
May 5, 2021
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In a rush? Here's the quick run-down.

  • Helicopter Stories let children act out their own stories in front of their peers. They create the story and use movements to act out the characters and objects.
  • The approach, developed by Vivian Gussin Paley, has benefits like boosting creativity and imagination, developing emotional and social skills and building literacy skills.
  • Trisha Lee takes us through Helicopter Stories step-by-step, and explains why they’re such a fantastic tool in children’s development.

Children have the most magical imaginations. An old loo roll? It’s a telescope. A wheelbarrow? An ancient Egyptian chariot.

Making up imaginary stories is a fantastic way for children to explore their creativity, and let their imaginations run free as they use it to make sense of the world around them. But there’s an extra special approach that lets children take their imaginary stories to the next level. 

And what are we talking about? Helicopter Stories. 

Helicopter Stories let children dictate and act out a story of their own making. It’s a completely open-ended approach, as children can interpret and act out their story any way they like. They use their arms to create windmills, or their whole body to make trees. 

As a practitioner, you can help boost creativity, emotional and social development and promote teamwork - and all you have to do is listen and write!

I had the chance to chat to Trisha Lee, founder and artistic director of Make Believe Arts, a theatre and education company. Trisha helped introduce Helicopter Stories to the UK, and has even written an entire book on it. We thought she’d be the perfect person to chat to about Helicopter Stories  and their potential for children’s learning. 

We’ll dive into why creating stories is so powerful in helping children learn, why Helicopter Stories take that learning to the next level, and how you can easily introduce them.

So what exactly is a Helicopter Story?

Helicopter Stories are actually really simple - the core idea is to let children dictate their own story, see it written down on paper, and perform it alongside their peers. They use their hands, their whole body and their voices to perform. 

“It’s about celebrating the poetry of children’s language, as well as the way they speak and act,” says Trisha.

Once you scribe a story, read it back to the children  and invite them to  act out the way  they think the characters, objects and buildings will look. This places the child at the heart of their own learning, as they’re the ones driving the story with their performance - you’re just there to give them a helping hand. 

The use of storytelling and story acting, or what Trisha calls Helicopter Stories, was started by the wonderful Vivian Gussin Paley, a Boston teacher who made it her life’s work to put children’s learning to the forefront. Trisha is determined her legacy will not be forgotten. 

Trisha named the approach after one of Vivian’s books - The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter. Think of it like a child stretching their arms far and wide to embody a helicopter!

The big ideas

Helicopter Stories in action

If a child is desperate to tell a story about their new rabbit, or about the pancakes they had that morning, then Helicopter Stories let them act out those ideas and emotions. 

We’ll go into how much a difference you can make by introducing this storytelling and story acting in a minute, but first here’s the run-down of how Helicopter Stories work from start to finish: 

  • Take a sheet of a5 paper - no more than one sheet, and have the child dictate their story.
  • Write down their story exactly how they tell it. Don’t be tempted to make grammar changes - just write down what they say, word for word.
  • Repeat the words back to them as you write, exactly how they’re written.
  • Now mark a large square with masking tape on the floor - this will be your stage for the children to perform.
  • Ask the child who created the story which part they’d like to play.
  • Invite other children to play characters and objects. They take it in turns from their place around the stage. Perhaps there are flowers in the story, or a big castle - invite them to join the stage in turn.
  • Read the story out loud, one line and a time, and let the children act out the story. Ask for actions as you go along i.e. ‘Can I see you being a tree? What does a cat sound like?’
  • Remember this is the child’s story. You are there to narrate only. Let the child take control and perform it any way they like.

An incredible learning opportunity 

Traditional storytelling itself is magical - it lets children use their imagination, and lets their creativity soar as they visualise the story. All that creativity and imagination is a tool for children to explore the world they’ve just been brought into - even if it’s just exploring that mummy works in a hospital.“Stories help children make sense of the world,” says Trisha. 

But if we look at the story acting and performing side of Helicopter Stories, it takes that learning two steps further. 

Children are free to explore ideas and perform them- it lets them visualise and perform any scenario, adventure or idea that’s on their mind. One minute a child is baking a birthday cake, the next a child might be riding a camel through the desert. 

Why Helicopter Stories go the extra mile: 

  • They give children autonomy. By letting children take control and use their imagination - it’s all up to them. They choose what they want to create and how to create it - they drive the story and act it out however they choose to.
  • They build confidence. Trisha states that this approach lets the  child know that you take their ideas seriously - that you value their ideas. This builds their confidence and helps them to continue to participate and be involved.
  • They boost imagination. Children are faced with creating objects, people and concepts with just their body, and this forces them to be creative. How would an elephant move, for example. Or what does rain sound like? It’s up to the children.
  • They encourage social development. Children work together and communicate to solve problems. “If I ask them to be a castle,”says Trisha “they work together to create a structure.” This boosts problem solving skills, and lets children work as a team. 

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Emotional development 

Even just reading stories to children about big emotions is a fantastic way for them to start working through things they don’t quite understand yet. But Helicopter Stories put those big emotions or ideas in a context they can really understand. 

They let the child work through a big emotion, idea or event sitting on their shoulders by processing it in a way that’s accessible to them - by visualising and working through it with movement. This could be a family member passing away, a big traffic accident or divorce. 

“I once had a child create a story about the tragedy of 9/11, and I was a little worried,” admits Trish. “It was a powerful story, and the child who told it wanted to be the plane [...] It turned out to be one of the most powerful stories I have ever seen.” 

“We get worried because we ourselves don’t know how to talk about it, and we might be afraid that children will trivialise it,”says Trish. “I kept saying ‘Trust the child, trust the child,’ and I am always amazed at the results.”  

The children asked to act it out again - it was away for them to process the images they’d seen on TV, and the news that constantly surrounded them. It helped them make sense of a big, scary event in a safe, controlled and accessible way. 


The building blocks of literacy 

Believe it or not, the benefits of story acting don’t stop there. Encouraging children with their oral language development has a wonderful effect on their writing skills later on. 

Getting children to act out their stories while seeing them written down gives them a language-rich environment. You’re not only supporting their oral language development, but you’re providing the building blocks for writing at a later stage.

Trisha notes that, because of Helicopter Stories, children have an increased willingness to write. All stories should be acted out on the day they’re written down, so if a child realises that they won’t be able to have their story written down by a practitioner, they run to paper and try to write it out themselves.

This is true even for children still in the mark-making stage - they’re desperate to tell their story and act out their preferred character. 

In short, Helicopter Stories provide excitement and creativity that has children rushing to put pen to paper, even if they’re not able to do the actual writing yet. It’s all about giving children exposure to language, vocabulary and grammar - in as many ways as you can. 

Top tips to keep in mind 

Before you draw out a stage and invite children to act out characters, here are few top tips to get you started:

Take a step back

  • “If I said to you right now ‘Be a house,’ you’d probably make a very square shape and point your hands up to act as the roof,” says Trisha. “But children see things differently - their eyes are fresher than ours.” If we interfere, we’re projecting our own views onto children, and stifling their creativity.
  • Holding back lets us see how children understand the world. They’ll use what they understand to represent their story, like blowing air to represent wind blowing in a storm. If you interfere, you shut the child down.

Try to model instead of correcting

  • It can be tempting to correct grammar mistakes or language mistakes, but write exactly what’s given to you and model the right grammar or language later on.
  • “If a child uses ‘I goed to the shops,’ leave this in the story,” says Trisha.“When you engage later on, read what the child wrote 'I goed to the shops,' and then ask 'Can I see you going to the shops?' instead of correcting them.” This values their words, and gives them confidence. Children might hold back if they think they’ll be corrected all the time, and can be a big knock to their confidence.

Keep their stories

  • Helicopter Stories are a fantastic way of seeing how much a child has developed over time. “You can see their stories develop from simple characters to full narratives over time,” says Trisha.
  • This is a great way to see how an individual child’s language evolves - and the way they see the world around them. Their vocabulary, plot and characters will develop, letting you see exactly how they understand and process the world.

If you’d like to read up a bit more about the helicopter approach and Trisha’s online learning resources, feel free to follow through to the website here. 

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Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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