Active storytelling

Rebecca Bell
Saturday, May 1, 2021

Rebecca Bell walks us through ‘Defining the Space’ – the construction of an imaginary location to use within the drama. It involves transforming the real environment into an imagined one.

Any available materials can be used to transform the ‘real’ space into an imagined one, such as boxes, furniture, stage blocks, rope, fabric, projection of digital images, labels or post-it notes, masking tape, PE equipment and apparatus, students’ bodies, and den building materials: tubes, umbrellas, crates, pallets, wheels, garden canes, clothes pegs. Use these materials to represent a ‘new’ location.

You can enhance your space with artefacts, smells, textures, change in lighting and sound effects. Consider using – a great search engine for songs and sounds.

Tips and considerations

It does not need to be elaborate! A PE hoop can represent a bottomless black hole in which to jump, and the adventure can begin! A large loop of rope can represent the perimeter of a forbidden island. Invite the children to discuss and map out their transformation before they steam in.

Use ‘Review and Do Buddies’: split your class into pairs – A and B. B works with the other Bs to define the space, while the As observe the team efforts, review the process and space, and offer constructive feedback.

Consider how long you need the new space for. This may influence how elaborate the transformation will be. Think about the scale of your design. Small world spaces can enable children to visualise themselves in that location, while large-scale spaces can offer a compelling, shared experience. Re-define different spaces: outdoors, the school library, school hall, the staff room; and travelling to an imagined space can heighten intrigue. Send out wish lists to the stakeholders in your school community for the materials you require, then store in resource tubs that can be used for themed transformations such as the desert, forest, or underwater.

Use this strategy to:

  • Help the students suspend their disbelief and engage as imaginative and creative learners. It supports them to visualise a setting and enter the imagined world of the drama
  • Offer clarity of historic, social, cultural, and geographic context for the drama
  • Challenge the perspective of children and offer experiences that can ignite empathy, such as being incarcerated in an attic like Anne Frank
  • Inspire knowledge and understanding – for example discovering an Egyptian burial chamber
  • Provoke high order thinking skills and problem solving: the boat will only carry 12 people safely and 30 need to evacuate the island before the volcano erupts. Who should have a place on board the vessel?
  • Inspire the affective dimension of learning by offering awe and wonder, excitement, beauty, fear, tension, and intrigue (to name but a few possible emotional responses). Enhancement with sounds and music, along with a change of lighting, can heighten this affective dimension; if we accept that the senses are the gateway to the learning brain, then a multisensory environment can set the brain up to think well
  • Inspire elevated role-play skills, for example the astronauts preparing for a world saving mission are more likely to elevate their language register and imaginative responses when in a classroom simulating a space station
  • Enhance vocabulary, especially in the materials, colours, and textures used. Students who have perhaps never been to the beach can experience the sand between their toes and the sounds of the sea (by using technology) and will feel more able to articulate that experience or describe that setting in their writing. Enhancing writing is, therefore, another great reason to use ‘Defining the Space’
  • Actively engage learners and promote rich concepts, for example spaces created using ‘Body Prop’ (the students using their bodies to construct an imaginary environment) can speak. This is a great way for children to grasp the concept of personification in their writing.
  • Increase the students’ ownership of the drama and the learning experience. Co-construction of the space heightens engagement and buy-in to learning, as people don't reject their own ideas, only those imposed upon them. A shared definition and understanding of a space also enables a connectedness within the learning community. That said, a space that the teacher has defined and is discovered or revealed to the learners can serve as a provocation that is super engaging and a great ‘hook’ into a positive teaching and learning encounter.
  • Develop social and emotional intelligence. This approach draws on the learners need to collaborate, express their ideas, compromise, negotiate and work as a collective – all skills required for learning effectively and for life beyond education.
  • Offer an inspiring context for other drama strategies, including tableau, ‘Guided Tour’, storytelling, ‘Occupational Mime’, ‘Meetings in Role’, ‘Teacher in Role’, ‘Place the Prop’ and ‘Place the Text’.

Ultimately, it can transport the children into a joyous learning experience that inspires their curiosity, hooks them into learning, and engages all involved.

Rebecca Bell is an internationally regarded Drama-in-Education practitioner and creative teaching and learning expert. She is currently the director of Integrate Education.