Provocations and Environments in Storytelling

Provocations are at the heart of storytelling. Recently while preparing to teach a class, I reflected on the role of provocations in environments. I was remembering a specific incident about how dramatic play engaged children in our program. We were trying to jump start vocabulary development in our bilingual classroom. It started with a study of how boys and girls interacted with dramatic play in the classroom (as dramatic play was ripe with language development) and the words they used during their play. I came to realize that the traditional dramatic play settings (especially kitchen sets) are generally divided by gender the closer we came to kindergarten.

While observing dramatic play, we observed complex vocabulary and negotiations of story that extended over time. Understanding that dramatic play was the heart of language in our classroom, and traditional dramatic play areas did not entice our preschool boys in the same way it enticed girls, made me look for areas the boys were working in our classrooms. The boys spent a significant amount of time in the building area of our classroom. The educators discussed the difference in the language used in the building area compared to the dramatic play area.

How did we extend language in our classroom and include all children in dramatic play?

We made a decision to fundamentally change the environment in our classroom, to see how we could engage all children in the rich art of storytelling during dramatic play. Out went the kitchen and the building area and were replaced with a series of provocations. In one classroom, the children were enthralled with the outdoors and nature. A family camping trip had inspired rich discussions about sleeping under the stars. We set up a camping provocation in the middle of the classroom, a camping scene with fire pit, tent, camping chairs, lanterns, and other camping gear.

The dynamics of the room changed, as children of both genders engaged in the new dramatic play area. Language and social negotiations thrived. Moving the dramatic play area to the center of the room, provided exposure for all children to connect to the space by its proximity to all other classrooms. As the space evolved, the centralized location supported the use of materials from all areas of the classroom. Children engaged in scaffolding the provocations with materials that have rights to be other things. As materials from around the classrooms became everything imaginable, language expanded even further.

At one point, the easel made it to the center of the room. We discovered that it made a wonderful place to record key elements of our stories. While the children were not interested in writing on the easel as part of their dramatic play, the easel became a place were we started to document the stories of children. We used small pieces of paper, for handwritten notes of children's ideas and words during play. As children were drawn to the images of their play on the easel, they began to scaffold play inspired by the documentation of their time in the space. We realized around this time, that our space was much more than a dramatic play area, it was a stage where children told their stories. 

What methods can educators use to capture the rich dialogue in the classroom? We tried inviting the children to write their stories following their play but interest was limited. As one of the educators worked with the children in capturing their stories, someone suggested to bring the easel to the group’s story writing activity.

We asked, “Could we use this documentation to tell the story of our play?

We brought this question to the group and it was decided that a book would be created telling the story of our camping play. With the children's imagination caught, we saw the whole class engaged in story writing. Eventually a writing station was set up near the dramatic play area. The station empowered the storytellers to work with actors, on points of the story during re-enactments. This was the missing piece needed to support the continuous circle of language development, storytelling, and story writing.

What we learned from this long-term process.

We needed to shift the engagement of the classroom away from traditional gender roles.

That location of the environment and the flexibility of materials to migrate in the classroom, increased language and social negotiations,

Documentation helped scaffold storytelling, enriching and deepening the experience of telling and extending the story by providing reminders of key elements of the story, 

Finding a way to engage in story writing was an iterative process, that caught on when the group found their big idea for classroom books.

Changing the way that the educators thought about dramatic play and removing our limiting beliefs about what was a space, fundamentally changed how we could see the children's interactions.

Over the course of the year, six classroom books were created and became some of the most cherished books in the library. The journey that happened in our program ended up being repeated through many of our classrooms as we let go of traditional expectations. It became a new way to think about literacy leading to my learning about the work of Reggio Emilia and a life long love affair with child-directed learning.