Get swept up in your children's play-acting

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 February, 2013, 6:17pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 February, 2013, 6:25pm

I know there are Nobel Laureates and Poet Laureates, but I only recently became aware of Children's Laureates - an award to celebrate outstanding achievement in children's book writing and illustrating in Britain. The current Children's Laureate is Julia Donaldson. Best known as the creator of The Gruffalo, Donaldson is focusing on play-reading, that is, dramatising picture books, in her two-year term.

After studying drama and music in school, Donaldson spent her early 20s busking around Europe with her guitar-playing husband, performing songs that she had written.

She eventually settled back in Britain to write and sing songs for children's television shows. One of her songs, A Squash and a Squeeze, was made into a picture book illustrated by Axel Scheffler. And thus began a successful partnership that continues after two decades and more than a dozen books, including The Gruffalo, Tiddler and Room on the Broom.

As with Donaldson and her sister in their childhood, my daughters are always play-acting. The grown-ups in our home must either participate or sit on the floor, because the pretend play invariably involves using our sofa as a fire engine, castle, or spaceship.

Last week, we joined a group of friends and their children for KidsFest's live theatre performance of Room on the Broom.

The story is told in the easy lilting rhyme and repetition that is Donaldson's signature style. (She has joked that it's hard for her to write lines that don't rhyme.) The live show adds catchy tunes that complement the story well.

Both my daughters enjoy the book, but the older one was anxious about seeing a dragon in the theatre performance. She learned from her friend who had seen the show the weekend before us that the onstage dragon was smaller in size than the onstage witch. She was so delighted with this news that she proceeded to share it with everyone within earshot at the show, without the requisite "spoiler alert" warning.

I find KidsFest shows very appealing because they resemble play-acting. They don't have hi-tech stage sets or elaborate costumes. The Room on the Broom performance consisted of four actors using basic costumes or puppets to play a variety of characters.

After watching the show, my friend and her two daughters came back to our home to play.

We had enjoyed The Nutcracker ballet together last month, and with the added inspiration from Room on the Broom, our girls put on their own five-minute performance of Nutcracker for my friend and me.

Children are naturally drawn to participating in stories, either by acting out parts of the story or by simply joining in the chorus. Play-reading not only stimulates the imagination, but also improves children's reading skills and builds their confidence.

In recent years, Donaldson has been writing material for schools; there is no doubt that she increased the fun level in learning phonics with her Songbird series of early readers from Oxford University Press. A keen advocate of play-reading, she will soon be publishing a series of 36 short plays through Pearson's Bug Club. It is titled Julia Donaldson Plays and includes her own plays and those of other children's authors. Intended for use in schools, each play has six parts, and the idea is for six children to read and swap parts until they are confident enough with the words to perform a rehearsed reading in class.

To try play-reading at home, Donaldson's Play Time is a collection of short plays which includes tips on ways each play can be acted and simple costumes ideas to help children get into character.

Play Time has so much great material for six- to 10-year-olds, I suspect it will be at least a few more years before my husband and I can sit on our sofa however and whenever we want.

Annie Ho is board chairwoman of Bring Me A Book Hong Kong, a non-profit organisation dedicated to improving children's literacy by reading aloud to them (bringmea