Let the children play

When Deborah Frances-White discovered her six year-old nephew was struggling with reading and writing, she turned not to extra tuition but to chaos, improvisation and some unusually aggressive puppets.

Illlustration of two puppets

Illustration by Claire Jones.

A small child is working out two things: “How much control can I have over the world?” and “How much control do I want over the world?” In some ways we continue to struggle with that question all our lives.

My sister, Kate, was called in for a meeting at her son’s school. Six year-old William was having trouble with reading and writing. His teachers were concerned he wasn’t processing correctly and that he didn’t seem interested in learning. He was too young to test for dyslexia. It was great that the teachers had flagged it up, but I was surprised because William is extremely imaginative (even factoring in my inevitable bias). I know this because I’ve spent time co-creating puppet shows with him. I was convinced that if he knew that letters were the code that unlocked story he would be motivated to master them. I also suspected that this issue was rooted in William’s desire to control his world because he is creative and strong-willed.

Soon after, we did one of our improvised puppet shows. This involved a dog: a new, as yet friendless puppet that was looking for a home. The dog approached a number of other puppets in an episodic journey to find a place to live, until he came upon a cat. The problem I could see was that the cat would probably live in a house and an invitation there would suit the dog and kill the narrative before we were ready. I saw William contemplate the same problem and make a quick decision. “I live up a tree,” he made the cat say. In my experience, that’s an exceptional head for story on six year-old shoulders. Why was he so enthralled with story and yet so uninterested in learning to read and write?

“It can be a wonderful thing to hand the reins to a small person and promise to follow them into their play space without caveats.”

I once heard a BBC Radio 4 show about the nature of genius. The one thing every genius seemed to have in common was that at some point in their childhood they’d been branded one and they had believed their own press and consequently lived up to it.

I wondered if we could convince William of his talents in this way. I told him that I thought the story we’d made up would make a good book and asked if he’d like to write it with me. I told him I would do all the actual writing, which I figured was the dull part. William wasn’t keen. This surprised me because he loves books. I revisited the idea of control. I told him I had a friend who was an illustrator and William could decide what the pictures looked like. I offered him a Creative Director role. His eyes lit up. He was delighted at the idea of this kind of managerial position.

Once I had his buy in, I took some paper and said I had to write the story down. “The hedgehog’s name is Spikey. How do you spell it?” I asked. He spelt out “S”, “P” and “I” phonically. Then his attention wandered and he spotted a newsletter on the table. He started to steal letters off the page, almost at random. I copied them without judgement, like a secretary. They spelt “Spinokspy” which I told him was a much more original name for a hedgehog than Spikey. We tried again with Kitty, the cat. Encouraged, he stole all the letters from the newsletter and spelled out “Kettle Laptop.” Everyone laughed at this crazy name. He was pleased with himself for getting a laugh and was enjoying using spelling to create and discover.

“He knows the difference between puppets and people. Who am I, a fan of Breaking Bad, to ban slapstick?”

“The dog is called Stanley. Do you like that name or do you want to invent a new one through spelling?” I asked. “I like that name,” William said. In that case, I told him, he should spell it out as it sounded. So he did. Perfectly. He had been allowed two acts of pure invention and then he was willing to conform. He had discovered that he had some control over his world and then found he didn’t need constant power.

Later that evening, after a puppet show involving a snooty penguin with a rather violent bouncer played by William, I asked him what he wanted the next story to be about. “Punching people in the face!” he shouted, on a roll. Fearful of encouraging violent behaviour, I replied, “They can’t all be about punching people.” His face fell. I then stopped and wondered, why can’t they all be about punching people? It’s just comedy. He knows the difference between puppets and people. Who am I, a fan of Breaking Bad, to ban slapstick?

So we did a ludicrous sketch about puppets promising each other treats but delivering punches in the face. William roared with laughter. (Actually, I found it pretty funny too, in a Vic & Bob kind of way.) Afterwards he wanted to do something much more gentle and contemplative. Far from exacerbating violent behaviour, it had acted as a punchy catharsis. When I asked him if he wanted to perform the “punch in the face” show for his parents, he replied that he’d rather do the one about the snobby penguin because, “It had more story.”

We sometimes fear letting genies out of bottles when playing with children. If we allow punching puppets, exploratory spelling or outrageous silliness during a maths lesson once, we worry we will set a precedent and ultimately lose control. But how much control can we ever really have over the children we nurture? And more than that, how much do we want? We can lead children to school but we cannot make them think. Sometimes when we trust them with chaos and rule-flouting, they can surprise us in their desire for accuracy or convention. It can be a wonderful thing to hand the reins to a small person and promise to follow them into their play space without caveats. Relinquishing control can be as thrilling for us as taking it is for them.

Recently, William’s mother heard him telling his friend that he was writing a book with his Aunty Deborah. I have just sent him the first draft and he has sent back excellent revisions. I hope when he’s receiving his Booker Prize he’ll look back on this as the time he realised his genius. After all, the very definition of genius is surely to question the rules and rewrite them. A genius takes control of their world and changes it just enough to make us all see things differently.

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Written by Deborah Frances-White

Deborah Frances-White is a comedian and screenwriter. Her BBC Radio 4 show Deborah Frances-White Rolls the Dice is currently on Mondays at 11.30am and ListenAgain. Episodes one and four are about how she found her biological family, including Kate and William.