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Story telling is an age old art and one that remains important in today’s early year settings. Scottish story teller, Ailie Findlay, the co-founder of the Flotsam & Jetsam storytelling and puppet theatre company, is increasingly finding it a useful way to help engage young children with special needs.
While making up her mind as to whether or not to pursue a career as a teacher, Ms Findlay “went to a wee course at a puppet school run in London by two puppeteers out of the back of their kitchen” and artfully combined that with her interest in story telling. That was more than 15 years ago and she never took up the place as a teacher.
Her aim as a story teller is to engage the audience as much as possible. She mainly performs – on average once or twice a week – in Scotland with “a few forays south of the Border” and offers general story telling in nurseries and schools, puppetry for early years and develops multi-sensory story packs with handmade props and puppets that others can use. Best described as performances, her stories last for about 30 minutes – and they nearly always have a visual element.
As well as telling classic tales and developing her own, she sometimes takes an old story and adapts it to make it easier to understand and bring it more into the world of the child. She says: “Props can also be invaluable. For example, I tell a Scottish version of Cinderella, known as Rashie Coat, which features three cloaks and I have had three child-sized cloaks made. One is in a golden material, and the other two have feathers and rushes that the children can put on when I get to that bit of the story.
“Many of my stories are developed to contain a sensory element – that is, the props and puppets used appeal to as many senses (sight, sound and smells) as possible. For example, I’ve one story about a flea and a louse where the story mentions the shaking of some sheets that smell of peat and I actually send sheets to a crofter in the Hebrides who hangs them over a fire in the croft to imbue them with that peaty smell.”
Story telling is a profession that offers instant gratification. Ms Findlay says: “The best times are those when you feel there’s a moment of pure connection with the audience. And there was the time when I was telling a story to an audience that included a little boy with very complex needs – he had learning difficulties – and he didn’t like new experiences. “I often repeat stories a number of times for children with complex needs. The first time the little boy heard the story he cried all the way through, but by the sixth time he was captivated – and reaching out for the props.”
“This direct connection between the story teller and the audience works particularly well with those who have special needs, although it has an effect on everyone. The stories can have a very calming effect and even wee children will react positively for longer.
“In today’s world we tend to think that children need more and more iPads and other devices – but if you slow right down and keep things simple you will hold their attention.”
Secrets and surprises
Many of her stories are developed with the needs of children under five in mind. Some of her tricks of the story teller’s trade include varying the pace and ensuring surprises. Ms Findlay says: “I think it’s important to give the children a rest from having to concentrate on listening which is where the visual props are so useful.
“Also secrets and surprises are important with wee ones. For example, when I do a Christmas show for the nurseries – I wear a bib dress with puppets in the pockets – one of which is a tiny chicken who I get to pop up from time to time, all the while pretending that I haven’t noticed it – and this is always very entertaining for the children.”
Edinburgh-based Flotsam & Jetsam intends to carry on in much the same way that it always has and in particular work even more with children who have special needs. As Ms Findlay says: “People don’t realise how much of a gift it is to give a child a story. We should all spend more time stepping out of a role telling people what or how to do things and into the realm of the imagination . Not only does storytelling build up the relationship between carer and child as it’s a shared experience, but it encourages playfulness.”
And she always knows when one of her stories has been a success. It’s not a question of cries of delight and applause but “when the children ignore me completely and just talk to the puppets!”
First job: ‘As a teenager I worked for the Bavarian Government’s Statistics Office collating agricultural land use forms!’
Favourite book: Winter Holiday by Arthur Ransome
Favourite film: The Railway Children
Favourite piece of music: Freedom Come All Ye – a folk song by Hamish Henderson
Best present received: A green doll’s pram when I was five
Last holiday: Camping in the Lake District
You can get more details of Flotsam & Jetsam's activities at http://www.flotsamandjetsam.co.uk/
Ms Findlay often performs at Scottish Storytelling Centre events.