Allan Ahlberg’s genius

Allan Ahlberg

Photo credit: Felix Clay, The Guardian



I can’t remember a time in my teaching career when there wasn’t Allan Ahlberg.

Heard it

Throughout some twenty-five years of tumultuous change in policy and curricula, he has remained a constant.

Heard it in

Look at this off-the-top-of-my-head list, created without the aid of Google or Amazon: Peepo!, Cops and Robbers, Burglar Bill, Funnybones, The Jolly Postman, The Jolly Christmas Postman, the Happy Families series, The Pencil, Each Peach Pear Plum.

Heard it in the

Classics, all of them.

Heard it in the playground

There isn’t a person under thirty-five, let alone a teacher, parent or grandparent, who has not read him, or heard him read aloud, with recognition and gratitude.

The playground, the playground

            The play, the play

Not to mention his immutable books of poetry about school, Please Mrs Butler and Heard it in the Playground.

The playground, the playground

            The play, the play

Each Peach Pear Plum/ I spy Tom Thumb

            Heard it in the playground



Think of The Cat in the Hat, the opening of Where the Wild Things Are, the first notes of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’.

Heard it in the playground



Indelible art.  There for all time. Eight words of one syllable each. They might have taken five seconds to write (or his whole life. In any case, it doesn’t matter.)

Heard it in the playground

Heard it in.

I think he must have known when he began writing that he was on to something.

Heard it in the playground

Pass it to me!

Pass it to me!

Tom Thumb in the cupboard/ I spy Mother Hubbard: where the reader is invited in, as both spectator and co-creator of meaning. It says: we are part of club, you and I, of knowing (and predicting) what comes next. I trust you to use your eyes (see that clue in the corner of the picture?), your sense of rhythm, your delight in rhyme.

Heard it in the playground

Shoot, shoot, shoot!

Mother Hubbard down the cellar/ I spy Cinderella

The mystery of this passing between us is that there is no set of instructions, no asterisk taking you to a footnote at the bottom of the page. You just know.

Heard it in the playground

Gimme my ball back!

Gimme my ball back!

Telling on you

Heard it the playground

Telling on you!

Or this, from the eponymous ‘Heard it in the Playground’. It demands to be read aloud, ideally at speed, in front of 4b on a wet Wednesday:

Heard it in the playground

Quality, quality

Heard it in the playground

Skill, skill, skill

Ace, nice, neat



Mega, mega, mega





Brill, brill, brill!

Skill, skill, skill!

Brill, skill, brill!

Heard it in the playground


It entered my life just as I was reading Michael Rosen’s theories about ‘oral writing’ in his seminal Did I Hear You Write? I’d been trying out some poems which I modelled in front of my own classes, to demonstrate the ways of saying I hoped they might attempt in their own work. Then Heard it in the Playground came out. My quest for a model ceased. ‘Here it is!’ I said to them. ‘Allan Ahlberg has done it for us!’ For this reason it is still the only poem by another poet I wish I had written.

Intertextuality. Orality. The representation of, and invitation to participate in, a culture. What Bruner called ‘possible worlds’.

All through sleight-of-hand, end of line rhyme and the establishing of a rhythm. Welcome to the club of reading, not only this, but of the world.

But wait. Now you see it, now you don’t. The twist is hidden in plain view. Don’t tell me you didn’t see it coming.

Don’t tell me you didn’t long for it to come: Plum pie in the sun/ I spy everyone!



Allan Ahlberg opens the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival on Friday 7th November at 5.30pm, with prizewinning young poets from Suffolk at the Family Reading in the Britten Studio



  1. How wonderful
    Heard his poems being read in a school last week
    Kids were thrilled
    Loved the words rolling around in their mouths like toffee


  2. Only last week, I read ‘The Ghost Teacher’ in a reading group with people who have dementia and they laughed so much. What joy-making from him and Janet Ahlberg. The books they created helped me and my husband become close to our children through reading.


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