I’m stood in the middle of a dilapidated Chinese school hall that seems to be a part time storage room for tables and chairs; it hasn’t had any money spent on it in years. With holes in the flooring and a carpet that covers part of the floor, it moves and slides when anyone walks on it as if it were ice. I’m surrounded by children who don’t speak my language and I have tears in my eyes...
Rewind three weeks and I’m in that same hall in China; Emily and I are trying to teach via an interpreter. We demonstrate as she describes in Mandarin. This is our first introductory workshop and the two of us are pulling out all the stops, using all the exercises we know that children and young people love... ‘the bankers’ we call them; those little exercises or tasks that can get even the trickiest of students working and achieving. However, no matter how hard we try, the students just don’t seem to respond; there’s too many barriers between us. We ask them to connect to each other to make an interesting shape- They argue and push each other around. We ask them to pass a move around the circle- they start shouting and falling on the floor.... it’s soon clear that these children have never worked like this before. I see Emily and we both have that look in our eyes; what is happening?! It’s a rude awakening for us; this isn’t the UK, you’re in China now!
To describe China within a blog would be impossible; it’s such a vast country with so many contradictions and clashing cultures. However to describe the children and young people we’re working with may be easier.
We’re in a Kindergarten school deep in the heart of Nantong, a city 80 miles from Shanghai. The city has a history for being at the centre of academic brilliance and is described as the learning capital in China. Here we’ve been asked to teach creativity and imagination through physical theatre to children aged 3-8 years old. The children we’re working with are high achievers; they have private music tuition, are taught foreign languages and participate in different clubs every night. They all live in multi storey apartment blocks with no outdoor space to use up all the excess energy and so the thought of working physically for an hour or so with Highly Sprung really appealed to the teachers and organisers of the project.
What we didn’t anticipate however, were the hurdles in communication and our ability to transfer our ideas to the children; sometimes words don’t translate and often our creativity was lost in explanation.
We soon realised that, despite all the extra curricular activities, the children participate in, they hadn’t yet developed the ability to work together, to communicate with each other. Effectively each class was a collection of islands with no bridges.
Enter Highly Sprung, a company known for its collaborative work, a company that thrives on play and social interactions; what could possibly go wrong?...
Sat in a coffee shop drowning our sorrows with a caramel latte, Emily and I look for the positives; it’s tough but productive. The class in question is the equivalent of a UK Year 2, but the difference is that these children have never been in formal education and don’t have the understanding of what the expectations are - in China, education doesn’t become formalised until the age of 9. The majority, non-privately educated, children under 9, are placed in Kindergartens who have no set curriculum with a system similar to that of the UK’s pre-schools.
Armed with a critical assessment of our first workshop, Emily and I set about creating a program of work to best suit the students. We start at the beginning; structuring the classes and giving the students some understanding of what is expected and how our sessions work. We limit our vocabulary and demonstrate more, by the end of week 3 the majority of our teaching is done via noises and smiles. The two of us collaborate, openly demonstrating how not only two people, but a boy and a girl can work together. As our vocabulary starts to decrease so too does theirs and team work starts to become visible. They start listening to each other through non-verbal communication for the first time. Their initial, involuntary shouts and screams when moving across the space soon become a thing of the past, their disregard for others in the room, diminished. Our class of islands are building bridges through dance and drama and it’s a beautiful sight!
Fast forward to our last week in Nantong, China. I’m stood in the middle of that dilapidated school hall, a storage room. I’m surround by children to whom we have nothing in common and we don’t speak each other’s language but I have tears in my eyes... not tears of sadness but of sheer joy and pride. We’ve only worked with this cohort of students for 6 hours but in that short time, these once overly energetic children have developed their own language; they speak a Highly Sprung language and the smiles on their faces say it all. In a bizarre way, by reducing our verbal communication within the room, we have actually succeeded in getting everyone to communicate better. Listening is now happening not just with their ears but with their eyes and their whole body... a true ensemble!
Focussed and disciplined, the children move as one, as they stretch, squash and squeeze. The once impossible task of standing in a straight line is a thing of the past. Over the past 6 hours they’ve learnt so much and now they’re performing to their open mouthed teacher with pride. The bridged islands are now a community forged through creativity and fun.... now that’s a community I can get on board with!
Thank you Supertots Kindergarten for reminding us of the true power of the arts and the unspoken language of Highly Sprung.