Seven years ago Sarah became a woman on a mission; to create a musical story telling class for babies and toddlers. With her whirlwind determination Sarah did this, wrote a play, ran workshops for babies and children then moved into childrens theatre. She also wrote a book, raised 2 children and won a bunch of awards for her company, Story Storks’ work.
I first met Sarah in 2012 and have followed her journey from thinking her business was about having fun with babies and wearing tap shoes to work, to realising that her classes were making a major impact on Early Years phonics development. Once Sarah got to grips with this she did what she knew best: took the Head of Early Years to the pub to learn more about language and literacy development in children and she hasn’t stopped researching since.
In this interview Sarah talks about the development of Story Storks, how she used her own children as guinea pigs and the emotional impact of stories on children. She also tells us of the research and local history incorporated in her latest play and the role of women in World War 1.
You can find out more about Sarah, Story Storks and her upcoming play, The Christmas Crocodile, via the links at the bottom of the page.
Story Storks has been around for a while now and has won a bunch of awards. How did Story Storks come about?
I am a scientist by training. I was working in medical advertising and doing amateur theatre as a hobby. I really enjoyed it. I was a dancer to start with then got leading roles. Going through the ranks of am dram to get my acting and directing skills has had a huge influence on me. The experience of learning from the ground up means I’ve never hesitated to hire a theatre and put on a show.
I did stand up comedy and had a career in acting. When I had my eldest daughter I was reading to her all the time. I was reading to her because I enjoyed it and was reading things I enjoyed. We also watching things I enjoyed (Dream Girls, Chicago) I sang it, she shook her maraca. she loved the stories so much that when she was 1 I started looking for a story class for her to go to and there wasn’t anything. In the meantime I’d started working as a Monkey Music teacher which I loved. I loved the product and looked at becoming a franchisee for Monkey Music. It was quite a lot of money up front with no guarantee of success – I couldn’t have been in this area as someone already had the franchise here. I’d also written a play and was still writing and coming up with comedy and decided I wanted to take my child to a story class which didn’t seem to exist. I thought how do children and stories not go hand in hand? That’s when I created Story Storks.
I set Story Storks up so it was dealing with a range of music with dancing, instruments, singing in every single session and I’d use the story to link it. I had teachers on maternity leave, Early Years providers, childminders, nannies, second time parents and they were all saying my classes were getting kids ready for reading. I was saying ‘no this is about me wearing leg warmers and tap shoes to work’. They all said ‘I think you’re wrong’! Then a Deputy Head said ‘Would you come to my school?’ I said absolutely not! She said ‘it really is about learning’ she then said when you reach the point where you realise what you’re doing will you give me a call?
My eldest daughter started nursery – she picked up a book and read. I was being chased by various people ‘ how have you done this?’ and I finally realised that perhaps everyone else had been right. I did a lot of research including taking the Head of Early Years to the pub. She explained about the history of the EYFS – the EPPE-project – events leading up to it. I went off and researched all that and continue to do so. I then rang the Deputy Head and agreed to go to her school. Story Storks was still parent and child based workshops but I started to do more school based stuff.
I had my second daughter, was still running the workshops where lots of people came in with babies, younger siblings to the older kids would be running off and the babies were the ones who really got it. I wrote the babies curricular and launched it when my baby was 12 weeks old. I had her to demonstrate on when I was delivering that class. She’s doing really well (aged 5) and reads with expression and enjoyment. Both my kids read for pleasure which was the ultimate goal.
That’s so inspiring! What’s next for Story Storks?
It’s all changing quite dramatically. 2 yeas ago I did my first big Christmas show in All Saints Church. I learnt a lot – how not to do it! In those first 2 years there was nothing I learnt without making a mistake first. I know a lot of people start this type of project off and stop because there’s no easy way to do it. You have to get used to failing. Doing stand up comedy prepared me for that. There is no failure like cracking a joke in front of an audience and it doesn’t work. In the second year I decided to go into a theatre which was the best decision ever. I’ve also made significant partnerships with local organisations – I do a lot of work with Kingston College. I’ve just cast a professional actor. We used to be a team of 3, we’re now a team of 4. We’re getting a dance troop of students who will get a credit for their performance. This year is a huge step up for Story Storks as the theatre work is starting to define us more.
Now the 30 hours of free childcare has come in (which was something I spoke out on and campaigned for. I believe it helps get women back into work, it provides proficient childcare etc) we’re having fewer people coming to the workshops. It’s ok though because workshops is not really where we are anymore.
The progression from workshops to bigger theatre productions sounds exciting. Can you tell us what this year’s show is about?
This year’s show is the biggest one by far and away. I got a Heritage Lottery grant to research the true story of the Sopwith Aviation Company in 1916, during World War 1. Founded by Thomas Sopwith, the aviation was company was based in Kingston because they were building the planes out of wood and they had a boat building industry here meaning they could steal the boat builders and get them building planes instead.
In 1916 when the conscription started women started going into the factories. When the war ends in 1918 the men demob but for Sopwiths the issue was that we no longer needed planes. There was no demand and a lot of people in the factory were let go. Some of them tried to use their skills to create opportunities to keep the company going so they started making spoons and spatulas. There’s a photo of these women in the Sopwith factory learning wood making skills.
They were learning 1 part of a carpenters apprenticeship rather than a whole skill set and they made a crocodile which got picked up by Bentalls, who used it in their Christmas ads where they were selling the most technically advanced toy. We don’t know the purpose of making the crocodile and we don’t have the exact records of the women who made it but we have found records of other women who worked in the factory. I’ve taken some of their stuff and stories, I’ve worked with a couple of local history groups who were fantastic and have provided so much support and the Heritage Centre.
The crocodile is lovely, he’s 26 inches long and is the mascot of Kingston Museum. The mechanism for making his mouth open and close no longer works and he’s covered in lead paint so can’t really be handled. We don’t know if he was the first of his kind but he would have been one of the first, which is cool as we still get pull along crocodile toys today. Kingston College Design and Technology students are building a replica of him which we’ll be using in the production then we’ll donate it to the museum.
I’ve taken one of the women who worked at the factory – Clara Archer – and am telling her story – right up to the point where the crocodile comes to life.
There was quite a lot of prejudice about women going out to work – it was ok for them to go into the factories because there was a war on but once the war ended there was an expectation that they would return to domestic life. They didn’t want to go back to that after having their independence. At the same time all the suffragette stuff was going on. The play is based in this time, with this feeling and has a large cast of characters including Tommy Sopwith. It’s steeped in local history and feels very apt to be on at the Arthur Cotterill Theatre in Kingston College; the town it’s set in.
“For a while I had imposter syndrome. I thought I couldn’t do it. “
Can you tell us more about Early Years Theatre
Theatre in Early Years is so under funded and you never get more than 4 people in a cast. Generally the actors all straight out of drama school. There’s a kind of rule that if you’re doing theatre for young people then you have to have young people on the stage and I find that a shock because a young person’s world is filled with their Mummy and Daddy, Grandma and Grandad, maybe even Great Grandparents.
With theatre you have the option of using stories that take kids to another place in their imagination. You can hit kids with bigger, harder, real-life concepts by using stories, and they come to it with an open curious mind. I did a workshop where one of the characters died and we explored that. The Workshop was Snow White. We explore difficult topics within the safety of a story and that way if someone does die in a child’s life, they’ve got a context to link it to. In a previous show we killed off a character then brought him back to life and it introduced mortality to the children. We have a lot of happiness in our stories too as our plays and workshops are designed to deal with childrens emotional range.
The Workshops and Theatre:
Workshops are about language development and getting children ready for reading. The theatre is getting them ready too – showing children the world around them within the safety of a story. It gives the children a context they understand which helps them concentrate all the way through.
My productions are amongst the biggest in Early Years because there are more than 4 people on the stage. We’ve got a significant investment going into the crocodile puppet this time round, taking this a step up into creating pioneering theatre for Early Years which is really exciting. All the work we’ve done from the workshops is being taken into the productions meaning we can take the experience and create something amazing for the children.
You’ve also written a book; The Three Little Christmas Pigs was my favourite Early Years book last year.
I wanted to write a book that would stretch from birth through a child’s Early Years experience. There’s a lot of repetition for Nursery and Reception readers so they can get and understand the words. It has clear directions for the children to read their part with different characters text being in different colours.
With picture books it’s more about the picture than the words. The books that really stand out are the ones which have both an illustrator and an author, where an illustrator draws and the author writes.
“How do children and stories not go hand in hand?“
Do you think that’s why Julia Donaldson has had so much success?
She’s a songwriter to begin with so really gets the rhythm of the words and the rhythm is one of the most important part for Early Years language development. I put so much work into the rhythm of my book to make sure people would get the patter which is really important for when you read the rhyme books. We’ve had sales all the year through, even though the book is focused on Christmas. We’re just about to release the 2nd print run.
We’ve written 2 other books in the same style which are in the pipeline, then the Christmas Crocodile which will hopefully be written in the same style. It may be written for slightly older children (3+). We’ve got Early Years in there with toys – Key Stage 1 with local history and there’s so much about how the world changed for women during World War 1, it pushes into Key Stage 2. The style’s ever so slightly different but has the same technical elements.
What’s next for you and Story Storks?
I’ve been playing with a grown up series of books that incorporates magic & Einsteins theory of relativity as it’s in theory, technically possible to time travel according to Einstein’s theory and to me, that smacks of Christmas Elves!
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