How To: Helicopter Stories

Are you looking for an activity that will improve your little one’s confidence, language and communication, and give you some insight into what’s on their mind? Look no further than Helicopter Stories.

What are ‘Helicopter Stories’?

Named when a little boy told an evocative story about a helicopter, this storytelling technique for children was invented by teacher and education researcher, Vivian Gussin-Paley.

Gussin-Paley lived from 1929 to 2019, and, in her lifetime, published 13 books and became the recipient of a McArthur Fellowship. She worked primarily in nurseries and kindergartens, teaching and observing how children grew, learned and developed. 

Over the years, Gussin-Paley realised the importance of storytelling and performing as a tool to help children communicate their needs and interests. Children use stories and roleplay to help them make sense of the world, whether that’s understanding what happens in the story of the Three Little Pigs, or processing the loss of a family member. Giving children the space and encouragement to perform these playful explorations is a great way for us adults to discover the topics and concepts we can be helping them with. So, with this in mind, Vivian Gussin-Paley developed Helicopter Stories: a fully open-ended method, designed to motivate children to share their thoughts and use their imaginations.

What’s so great about Helicopter Stories?

In 2013, the Open University published a report evaluating the effects of the Helicopter Stories technique on young children. You can read the full report here, but these are some of the key findings:

  • Taking part in Helicopter Stories provided children with the appropriate motivation and environment to significantly develop their communication skills, including nonverbal communication, spoken language and literacy - both when talking to adults and other children.

  • The technique had a particularly strong impact on children’s spoken language, and provided clear evidence for how children were improving.

  • The approach significantly impacted upon children’s confidence, with even some of the quietest children learning to speak up and take part. It developed their sense of agency, as they felt, more and more, they could choose what they wanted to say and be listened to.

  • Children became more motivated to engage in literacy activities, such as writing down their own stories and following story transcripts.

  • Children developed performance skills, and became more creative in their performance techniques.

  • Children grew in their willingness to take on roles with which they didn’t identify, for example playing a role of the opposite gender.

On top of benefits to children, the evaluation also found that adults who used the Helicopter Technique developed skills in listening to children, letting them lead, and understanding their language development.

How does it work?

We’ve extolled the virtues of Helicopter Stories, so by now you’re probably wondering how to do it! You’ll be happy to hear it’s really very simple. Here are our instructions for Helicopter Stories at Home:

  1. Grab a large piece of paper and a pen.

  2. Ask your little one to tell you a story. As they do, write it down, word for word. (Don’t worry, it probably won’t be very long! Our pre-school children averaged around three to five lines).

  3. Read the story back to them, once. Try to avoid changing anything - even the grammar!

  4. Now point or mark out your ‘performance area’. If you have more than one child, you can ask them which parts they would like to play.

  5. Read out the story, one line at a time, and encourage your little one(s) to act it out. 
    For example, if they wrote ‘there was a big tree’, you could ask ‘can I see you being a tree?’

And that’s it! With those five simple steps, you’ll get to witness their creativity, imagination and learn a little about what’s going on inside their heads!

...But we couldn’t leave without giving you some additional tips!

While Helicopter Stories really are that simple, these tips will help you get the very most out of the experience:

  • Let your child lead.
    Avoid suggestions or corrections at any stage. If your little one thinks they’re going to be corrected, or that they need to say or do something specific for you to listen or enjoy their story, they won’t be as open or confident. Helicopter Stories are also a great way to embrace how differently your little one sees the world! If you were told to be a tree, you’d probably stand tall and spread your arms wide, but your child may do things a little differently…

  • Model language.
    It can be hard to avoid correcting your little one’s grammar - after all, how will they learn? Well, what you can do is model the correct language, without pointing out that they got it wrong. For example, if they wrote ‘The cat goed to shops’, you could read the line, then follow it with ‘Can you show me the cat going to the shops?’

  • Remember to give specific praise.
    If you regularly read our blog, you’ll know this one already! Rather than giving them a blanket ‘that was amazing!’ or ‘you’re so good at storytelling!’, try to pick out specific things you liked about your little one’s story and/or performance. Maybe it was the way they embodied a butterfly, or the moment the Big Bad Wolf decided to eat baked beans instead of Grandma… This not only shows them that you engaged with their story, it can also encourage them to create stories for the innate joy of it, rather than for parental praise.

  • Keep the stories!
    Not only are these wonderful keepsakes, but, if you go back over your little one’s stories, you’ll very quickly begin to notice how their grammar, language and sense of narrative style develop!

And that’s the end! I hope you have a lot of fun creating stories with your little ones - and do share them with us via Instagram! You can also contact us there if you have any questions about using this technique.

We wish you many a ‘happily ever after’!

Content Creator at MEplace


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