Over the past couple of weeks at Forest School we have been visited by a pack of wolves, a “nice dinosaur”, a pair of tiger brothers, countless doggies and horsies, a mountain lion cub, and numerous fearsome pirates.
In fact, just last Thursday, a raccoon family consisting of two daughters (A. and B.) and their mother (yours truly) were paddling along between Cuba and Bon Echo Campground (I mean, as you do), stopping every now and again for groceries (strawberries, broccoli, cake), when they were overtaken by Dan Diamond (Z.), captain of the pirate ship The Black Diamond, who commandeered them into a journey (back?) to the Caribbean. Now, Capt’n Diamond was, in fact, a bear, and a very surly bear, due to the fact that he should have been hibernating. As a result, he was so tired that he often fell asleep midsentence, which made things quite dangerous for the raccoons, and he had to be plied and placated with grilled cheese sandwiches and energy drinks – both with extra honey.
On our journey we endured attacks from other pirate ships during which the raccoon family hid in the Captain’s quarters, and many terrible storms, during which baby raccoons went repeatedly overboard. Brave (though surly) Capt’n Diamond never hesitated to rescue them, but during one such rescue he was attacked by a shark! Luckily he was able to escape and get back onto the ship through a porthole, but he was so exhausted after this misadventure that the raccoons could hardly wake him up – and a raccoon must be careful indeed when waking Capt’n Dan.
The seas eventually calmed, and the intrepid sailors/paddlers made it to the Caribbean where the Captain went diving for Blackbeard’s treasure and found the “jackpot”!
Over the past couple of weeks at Forest School I have been thinking a lot about stories. Storytelling is central to the Forest School tradition, and I’ve been trying to put my finger on just why that is and what it looks like. When I first started teaching Outdoor Kindergarten, I realized quickly that telling as opposed to reading stories was often just practical, because not having to have a book with me was one less thing to carry, and because turning pages in the winter is the worst. So I learned and practiced stories to tell, and that’s what I thought storytelling in the Forest School context looked like: teacher tells stories, preexisting stories/stories written by others, because it’s practical and enjoyable, and students listen.
As time went on, and without any premeditation, I found myself inventing stories based on what my students had been doing – puddles became giant lakes, hills dangerous cliffs, and students brave explorers – and sharing those tales with my students at various snack and water breaks. It became a way to motivate them to continue on, and a way to heighten the sense of adventure and accomplishment in our daily hikes. So storytelling became a tool (though at first it was just a source of pleasure for me to watch my kids become engrossed in stories that were about them, and to watch them slowly realize that!), but still a tool that only I wielded (as far as I was then aware!).
At the same time, I was attempting to incorporate Vivian Paley’s story-acting strategy (described in many of her books) into the Outdoor Kindergarten program. Paley, a longtime and really inspirational Kindergarten teacher, had her students regularly act out both the stories they’d written themselves and those she’d read aloud to them as a means of fostering deep comprehension, sophisticated inferencing and questioning skills, and a profound sense of story, among many other skills and values even beyond those literacy-related. I wanted so badly to build the culture necessary for this to work with my class, but, in the end, in the context of many worthy goals, I let this one go, and I’ve been mourning that concession ever since.
Until this week, when I realized – kids are acting out stories every time they engage in imaginative play! (If only I had realized earlier, I could have inversed Paley’s program and used their play-stories as the basis for shared writing!) Even when they’re not playing pretend, even if we’re hiking, or building, or drawing, there are stories unfolding, waiting to be shared.
So why does this matter? What’s really happening when kids are playing pretend, playing story, and particularly in the Forest School context? At this point I can articulate a few things: they’re practicing complex social skills including self-regulation, they’re connecting to the land, and they’re connecting to each other.
Those first two points are not mine. I’m reading Peter Gray’s Free to Learn right now, and he (among many others) argues that “among the biggest lessons of [socio-dramatic play]” (i.e. playing pirates and raccoon family and combining those two scenarios) “are those of self-assertion, negotiation, and compromise” (166). There’s such a delicate give and take required of children when playing pretend. Because the world they’re inhabiting in their play is made up, the way that world works is constantly in the process of being made up – being narrated. It’s constantly evolving, and so constantly being negotiated, and Gray also points out that, for the game to work, for it to continue with all the players, all the players have to be at least minimally satisfied.
This week the raccoon/pirate adventures continued. The raccoons actually had a double birthday party on the ship that had to be prepared (more trips to grocery store) before it was celebrated, and there were a few more pirates thrown into the mix. There were struggles to determine who would be captain, both of the “ship” and of the story. There had to be a sharing of the narrative voice, and there was a vigorous working out of the balance of whose voice was heard, whose ideas were driving the play forward. The kids had to consent to the narration of others, which they did both verbally and by modifying their play to accept the new terms of the imaginary scenario. They had to “present their case skillfully to come as close as possible to getting what [they] wanted” (166) in the game, or they had to modify their narration to please others, so that they’d stay in the game. In other words, they practiced great self-restraint, they had to read the cues of their peers to know if they were satisfied enough to keep playing, they had to ask for what they wanted in an effective way, they had to negotiate and compromise, as Gray suggests. One last quote to this point: “Children who engage in more sociodramatic play have, by various measures, been shown to demonstrate more empathy, and more ability to understand what another person thinks, knows, or desires, than do children who engage in less” (168).
The idea that through playing story children connect to the land is also not mine. Rather, it’s Jay Griffiths’ (or, at least, it came to me by way of her book A Country Called Childhood). She writes about “Well-Dressing Days”, which I gather used to be a custom among children in the UK wherein they would literally put garlands and ribbons on wells and springs, “cloth[ing] the spring with meaning and memory” (17). I think children are metaphorically clothing the land with meaning and memory when they play outside. I’ve seen how, over the last 6 months, our Forest School site has gone from a kind of uniform, anonymous block of “forest”, to a multitude of infinitely different and intimately known pockets, each with its own memories, each inspiring a different kind of play, a different discovery, a different story, and some with their own whimsical names: The Rocky Place, The Rocky and Mossy Place, The Rocky Place 2, The Elephant Tree, The Pirate Ship, The Other Pirate Ship; that tree I knocked down, that place where I hid and was never found, those stumps where we found salamanders, the place where the buck was…
Stories help us all connect to the land, and that, ultimately, is at the heart of Forest School!
I’ve also come to believe, in watching the play at Forest School, that stories help children (and all of us) connect to each other. Stories, whether read together, invented and spun around the fire, or played out through imaginary scenarios, seem to create a space of safety, wherein you’re not quite being yourself, so you’re not quite risking the same vulnerability as when you are being yourself, and yet you’re still offering something of yourself, something really true to yourself. Maybe a better way to put it would be like this: if a playmate rejects your orders as captain of the pirate ship, it’s not quite as painful as if you were rejected, as you. Yet when your ideas are accepted, when you’re included in a game, when the story you invent is received with rapt attention and enthusiasm, somehow that is an acceptance and an affirmation of your true self. For me, that’s another reason why stories are at the heart of Forest School.
Thanks for reading this story.