Happy 2023. This year I have agreed to write a company blog. I used to write one. Ironically, for a theatre maker, I stopped. I wasn’t sure if my voice was relevant / authoritative / expert enough. In fear of not being ‘right’ enough, I stopped writing, stopped talking and stopped championing all the wonderful things that happen at Bounce. Which is ironic, as a lot of what we do at Bounce is encouraging people to find their voice. We do this in all sorts of ways – from teaching digital writing classes through the chat function for young people with anxiety to making plays which allow young people to debate feminism, the NHS, aging and family values. There’s a lot of thought that goes into how teenagers can be given the platform to find their voice.
Yet, this is a new blog for a new year. So, here’s some thoughts about a new project we started this week.
Bounce has become part of the Speech Bubbles network. Speech Bubbles is a national charity focused on delivering a high quality drama intervention for key stage one. Delivered by theatre partners around the UK and supported by the CI0, thousands of children will benefit from the programme this year. I had always admired the programme but over the last year or so, it became of personal interest.
I am a mum to a four-year-old bundle of destruction who is also pre-verbal. I prefer the term pre-verbal to non-verbal. He says the odd word and is, frankly, only four years old. In other education systems I wouldn’t have to consider if he was ready for phonics. In our house, we have developed our own systems of communication – we know the things we say that he understands. He also shows us through gestures when he wants certain things. We can muddle through our days, playing with musical instruments, footballs, and building blocks. There is plenty of joy. However, when he moved to a school nursery this year, I became acutely aware of the absence of his voice in the more unexpected moments. Walking out the school I heard another child in nursery rattle off everything they did that day, who played with who, what the kindness book was all about, and the snacks they ate. It was an acute moment of sadness for me. My child is one of 1.7 million who are currently finding language and talking is an impossible hurdle (https://speechandlanguage.org.uk/educator-hub/). That’s also 1.7 million voices not reaching their full potential, sharing the best or worst bits of their days or affirming the value of their own voice.
Our education system places high demands on our children at a very young age. My other son is in Year 2. At parents’ evening, his teacher told me he was doing really well, could often put his hand up and articulate his thoughts. We needed to work on his handwriting though as he should be doing joined-up writing by the end of the year. He had a cry over his spelling homework before Christmas. He told me he couldn’t keep up after being off ill for a couple of weeks. I felt immensely grateful that he could articulate his emotions and we sacked off the rest of his homework. (His teacher was lovely and empathetic and admitted they cram in huge volumes of learning because it’s the end of the key stage.)
I try to imagine my youngest child a few years from now. The challenges he might face to focus, to concentrate, to feel confident that his voice is relevant. He won’t be alone. He is one of millions not getting enough access to speech and language intervention from an overstretched system. Maths until you are 18 was a punchy little headline recently. This is actually perhaps a more nuanced debate given the data-driven world we live in. However, I fundamentally believe we will fail our children if we don’t give them the tools to communicate. Even the data-driven, technological world we live in needs people who can articulate ideas, communicate to others, problem-solve, and innovate. If we are to create fully-rounded individuals, they also need space to breathe, to learn to articulate feelings and emotions, to be heard and to hear themselves.
This is where drama, stories, and play come in and why children should be playing as long as possible. Play opens pathways in the brain that allow children to test their skills, explore new ways of doing things, and make sense of their feelings and the world. Play also permits you to step outside of yourself and experience things in the mind of someone (or something) else. When you play, you can step outside of your comfort zone without realising. In our Speech Bubbles Sessions we turned a bed into a rocket with our bodies. We also built joint attention around a story. We could take turns to act, listen and identify how characters felt. In those moments we started working on core skills on the language pyramid. At the end of our first session a little boy asked me if I could be his new teacher. I would hazard a guess his actual teacher is dead on, they just don’t have the luxury of time to play.
Imagine a world where politicians were brave and bold enough to let children and teachers play more. The difference it could make to those 1.7 million children. To all children.
More play please.