The best toy we ever bought is also the simplest. At first glance you might even struggle to see that it is a toy at all. The toy that has helped my children so much is an unassuming, plain and empty black tray.
The tray itself fits easily on top of my children’s small playroom table and can be easily stored behind a cupboard when not in use. However, this amazing toy has rarely been away in the five years we’ve had it.
Irlen syndrome and specific learning difficulties
Both my children experience symptoms of Irlen syndrome. This is clearest in my seven-year old daughter who experiences discomfort when reading and writing. She is a reluctant writer who will use the minimum of text to finish any task that she cannot avoid by other means.
What this toy has allowed my children to do is to develop their understanding of narrative form throughout their childhoods. This would be good for any child, but for a child with a specific learning difficulty this can be essential.
The empty black tray has been many things over the years; a seascape, a farm, a zoo, a pre-historic scene and even space-world. The tray can be made into anything the children imagine it to be: Sometimes scientific, sometimes fantastic and on occasion downright absurd. Most ‘worlds’ are created out of the children’s existing toys and require no expenditure or trips to the shops.
Creating worlds and storytelling
What the creation of worlds enables children to do is to build up stories using the building blocks of storytelling. First there is a setting (ocean with shells and sand, farm with trees and fields, pre-history with rocks and stones, space represented by shiny aluminium foil). Next the child can add features which denote this setting (boats, barns, fir trees, rocket) and then finally the child can add the ‘subjects’ of their story or inhabitants of their world (pirates or fish, famers and cows, dinosaurs, astronauts or aliens).
By building up this world the child is creating the story of this world and its inhabitants. This is a tangible version of the process children undertake when writing a narrative (‘On a dusty lunar surface a rocket stands surrounded by aliens. An astronaut peers out of the window…).
The child can also create their world starting from the ‘subject’ of their story by then building the environment around their main character (‘The farmer wakes up, walks to his tractor and drives over to milk the cows’).
Once the world is created then the scene is set for the story to develop any way the child’s imagination chooses it to. Moving the characters around to interact with their environment allows a child to build up more sophisticated plot and narrative. Long storylines can be developed which would simply be impossible if the child were reliant on their ability to write.
This can free a child up to experience the joy of storytelling and plot creation. My daughter used to cry if I asked her to write a sentence. She quickly became frustrated and uncomfortable when confronted with a blank page of white paper. This same child could create a world of fairies that would occupy her and her brother for two hours.
Developing narrative skills
What our empty black box has done is to enable both of my children to develop their narrative skills in a fun and meaningful way. Yes, it has taken them both longer to build up the writing skills to do this on paper. Fortunately, their language skills were already developed, simply waiting for their writing ability to catch up. This has prevented them from falling behind too far and has ensured they are growing up with a love of language in all its many and beautiful forms. This allows them to transcend their frustrations and discomfort they associate with pens and paper. It enables them to flourish and evolve into not only confident and happy storytellers but also into the potential natural historians, physicists and anthropologists of the future.
Our square tray measures 60cm x 60cm and it 7 cm deep. We bought ours five years ago from Hope Education.
This comes as a ‘Creation Station’ on sale for £6.59. This can be bought from Hope Education with along with a number of ‘mats’ with the base of different scenes designed on them.
Before we had our wonderful empty box, we cleared a shelf on a secure bookcase. This shelf was at the children’s height and they used to create ‘scenes’ on it.
Regular stars of ‘scenes’ and ‘worlds’ are dinosaurs; farm animals, zoo/safari animals, fairies, dolls house families, ocean animals/fish, aliens, insect and dragons. Props include cars, dolls house furniture, bath toys including boats, rocks, shells, miniature farm buildings, rockets and lunar craft. All of these come from my children’s own toy boxes.