Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ The Magic of Objects: 5

The Flexible Fan

Fabulous, fan-u-lous, fascinating …

a piece of material that can make a flexible fan inspires imaginations, sparks imagery and fires story-potential.

How I discovered the magic of the flexible fan

My most flexible fan – the  brown-beige one pictured here – was given to me on one of the storytelling courses that I ran in Redbridge at the end of the 1980s. The courses were mainly for parents and I was asked to run them as a contribution to the borough’s National Oracy Project programme. Consisting of a half-day session per week, each of the courses ran for ten weeks. Almost apologetically at the end of one session, one participant on one of the courses (she also worked as a school dinner-lady) handed me this odd piece of pleated fabric. ‘You never know,’ she said, ‘it might come in useful.’ I asked her where she’d got it. ‘It’s a piece of cut-off old blind,’ she reported.

Around the same time, my storyteller colleague, Karen Tovell, (we ran ten years of monthly workshops together) showed me how to use a much larger flexible fan made from two sheets of fibre-paper in order to tell the lovely Chinese story of the Willow Pattern plate. I remember being entranced as Karen showed me how many different shapes could be created – tree, bridge, door, sun, moon, boat , bird, stars- and how magical they could be in a story.

How to provide yourself with your own flexible fan

What you need

If you were lucky, you might find a piece of cut-off blind like the one that was given to me. Otherwise, you’ll need to experiment with materials and sizes. For instance, the fans pictured here are 136×21 cm.  Any one of the following materials might do:

  • One or two sheets of not-too-thick fibre paper bought from a good paper-supplier
  • Two or three double-page spreads from the middle of a Colour Magazine
  • Or maybe try a piece of flexible Vilene (dyed or painted)

How you proceed

  • Stick the newspaper spreads or fibre-paper together with glue to make one continuous piece
  • Fold the resulting piece width-wise into concertina pleats
  • Iron the pleats to make the creases sharp
  • Admire your fabulous new fan and take time to experiment with it

How you can use your flexible fan in your storytelling:

  • Swish your fan round in front of your audience, making different shapes with it, and see what responses you get
  • Or hand it round a story -circle giving each person time to handle the fan and, if they wish, to say what they see. (I never pressurise people to speak if they don’t want to – it has to be spontaneous.)
  • Maybe think of a new or traditional story in which your fan could play a part (see an example below)

What magical responses you can get

Whatever kind of flexible fan you manage to come up with, the possibilities are endlessly exciting, the responses to be heard and treasured. One five-year-old boy made my neck-hairs tingle when, watching the movement of my brown-beige fan, he called out quietly, ‘It’s broken sunshine.’

For an eleven-year-old boy in a Pupil Referral Unit  in Croydon – and it’s often been boys who have been especially responsive – the fan was the thing that got him really hooked during my storytelling visits. He became completely entranced. He saw all kinds of things in the fan, including an Elizabethan ruff (they’d been ‘doing’ the Tudors in lessons) and it helped him concentrate and settle to stories.

Then again, I specially remember the occasion when a six-year old boy in a Primary School picked up my fan and, beaming widely, put one end against his chin and showed me how he could slowly release the fan to grow himself a long, long beard. So why not use your fan as a beard in the fascinating story below?

A Story for Telling: Two Birds In A Beard (or How The Birds Came To Live In Trees)

The source:

This is the first traditional story I’ve included in these Storytelling Starter Blogs (there will be lots more to come). I heard it from a shy young Thai woman who attended one of my Adult Education courses in Storytelling which I ran in my home area of Lambeth early on in my storytelling life. Many of the people who attended those courses were people from other cultures. (At the time it was calculated that the Borough of Lambeth had 96 first languages in it.) Apologising needlessly for her lack of English, this young Thai woman then told this tale which, she said, was part of a much longer story back home. She had known the story since childhood. You can find a fuller retelling of it in my book, Stories for Young Children and how to tell them (Featherstone Education) which includes a CD of me telling the stories.

The story:

There was once a hermit who went to live in a cave in order to gain peace for his meditations. While he was living there, his beard grew longer and longer until eventually two birds who flew into the cave built their nest in his beard.

Soon there were five eggs in the nest and, patiently, Mother Bird and Father Bird took turns to sit on the eggs to hatch them. When they were hatched (and that was a noisy event!) Mother Bird and Father Bird took turns to go and find food for their chicks.

Alas, one day when Father Bird went off to look for nice juicy worms, he searched and searched but his search proved vain. Further and further away he flew until at last, he had to rest.

Exhausted, Father Bird flew down and  landed in the middle of a large white flower on the edge of a wide blue lake. When he awoke, he found he was trapped. The sun had set and the flower had closed. Father Bird was very upset, thinking of his little chicks going hungry. But then, in the morning when the sun came up, the flower opened again and Father Bird was greatly relieved to be able to fly back home. to his nest in the cave.

Of course, by the time Father Bird got back to the nest, the little chicks were extremely hungry and making a terrific noise and Mother Bird was upset and angry. An argument ensued. (‘Where have you been? ‘I got trapped in a flower.’ ‘I don’t believe you.’ ‘It’s true, I was trapped.’)

And in the middle of the racket, the birds heard a big deep voice. It was not like anything they’d ever heard before and this is what it said: ‘You two birds are making too much noise. You’ll have to go and live somewhere else.’

So (after suitable investigations) the two birds moved, taking their family with them. They went to live in the trees – and that’s where birds have been living ever since.

Using your fan in the story

  • Use your fan to make the long, long beard.
  • Use it to represent Father Bird flying.
  • Use it to create the shape of the flower where Father Bird takes a rest.
  • Use it to make the shape of the tree where the birds go to make their new home.


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.

Next week:  Wait and see!

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3 Responses to “Storytelling Starters ~ The Magic of Objects: 5”

  1. Hilary Minns Says:

    Thank you, Mary. I look forwsrd to trying out these ideas with my storytelling group in the spring term. I’ve seen you telling stories with your flexible fan and would encourage everyone to have a go at making one of their own.

  2. Kevin Walker Says:

    Oh my gosh…I want one of these. I shall be scouring the local shops for suitable fabric!! Fan dance/stories here I come!

  3. Emma Says:

    I love the story, and so tickled to be able to flutter and fold my very own storytelling fan as provided by the storyteller herself!

    Great blog. I have emailed you more…

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