Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters: Desert Island

Desert Island is a marvellous and deceptively simple game that was developed by myself and storytelling colleague, Karen Tovell. Karen and I made it up for one of our famous Drill Hall workshops. These were monthly day-long workshops which began in 1986 and went on for 10 whole years, moving in latter years to the Holborn Centre for the Performing Arts.

We covered a great deal of ground in those workshops. An enormous number of stories got told both by ourselves and participants too. We also developed a huge number of exercises and activities that enabled people to explore these stories, discovering their hidden depths and using them as take-off points for creating new tales. (By the way, one person who used regularly to come to the workshops sent me a great email this week saying he still uses some of the ideas and routines we did there. Any more of you out there?)

Desert Island – the game

Desert Island is a game for a group of people. It’s a childlike game (excellent for children’s birthday parties!) but adults seem to get just as much out of it. In an adult workshop setting, it provides an invaluable opportunity to get everyone relaxed and start using words, exercising imaginations and sharing fun.

What you need:

Get everyone sitting down in a circle. Use knee-tapping and finger-clicking as you start chanting the words. The game starts with YOU as game-leader and facilitator.

The words:

There was a desert island
And on that desert island
Mary put ….

(Generally at this point, there’s a pause as the leader thinks of what to put on the island. As an example, I (Mary) shall choose to put a monkey.

Start again by repeating the words up to and including ‘Mary put a monkey’. Then turn to the next person to you. (I usually go clock-wise to my left). Ask this person to say their name – for example, Helena – and then ask them what they’re going to put on the island. A horse maybe? Everyone then calls it out: ‘Helena put a horse.’

Now begin the chant again and continue to go round the circle. Start with yourself at the beginning each time and add on each participant in turn until everyone has been included. If the circle is big (15 or more is big!), it’s open to you to say after a while that you’re going to change the pattern slightly (or you might be there forever!) and do two people at a time.


The game puts everyone at their ease. No-one need feel up against it when it comes to their turn. Make it clear that, if anyone is stuck for an idea of what to put on the island, everyone else will make suggestions. This hardly ever proves necessary.

The game allows different levels of idea to emerge. Some people get on to an easy theme such as animals. Some get on to more abstract offerings such as Music or Harmony. Usually there’s a real mixture in the types of contribution. If you wish, you can subtly guide the results by the type of contribution you yourself offer at the start.

The game exercises memory. It’s especially excellent for memorising people’s names. You’ll find that, weeks later, people spontaneously recall what they and others put onto the island. By a process of association, they then also remember each others’ names.

The game encourages association. As the island gets populated as the game continues, participants are often visualising the island in their own minds. If the contributions are especially lively, you can use this liveliness to go on afterwards to build on what people have visualised.

Using the visualisations:

Whether you’re working with children or adults, get people in groups (or even one big group to make a huge map of their desert island, marking on to it where they’ve been thinking everything goes.

Or talk together about the island, imagining what it’s like and what’s going on there. Sometimes a story of the island’s life has already begun emerging in people’s responses to the various contributions. It can be the most enormous fun to continue this, creating the world of the desert island.For example, where did the monkey hang out? What was its relationship with the horse? Did they both try to get hold of Anna’s apple?

Next Week:

Desert Island has spawned numerous variations of itself. I’ll talk about some of these next week.

Note: All the illustrations this week are from leaflets and posters for early Drill Hall workshops – on Using the Art, Creation Stories and Freedom. All are the copyright of Karen Tovell.



Links: You can also read occasional blogs by me on the Early Learning HQ website.  Early Learning HQ offers hundreds of free downloadable foundation stage and key stage one teaching resources. It also has an extensive blog section with contributions from a wide range of early years professionals, consultants and storytellers. For details of the Society for Storytelling, click here


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