An Adventure Calls

By Ben Mali Macfadyen

No one knew where he came from. Some called him a storyteller. Others said he travelled through time, escaping from dinosaurs, climbing through the clouds and swimming to underwater castles.

No one knew how he got there. He just appeared in the school one cold day. Guided by an ancient treasure map, the children were led outside to discover that the playground had transformed into a magical world. They ran like animals through The Forgotten Forest. They sailed as pirates across The Enchanted Loch. They played games, laughed and dreamed. When their adventure was done, the children returned to their classroom. With cold fingers and shining imaginations they helped fill up Ben’s story box and learn how to take care of the amazing nature they had discovered.

Before he left, Ben told them that if they all clapped their hands 3 times and made animal sounds then he would appear again and take them on another amazing adventure.

But this is just a story. It can’t come true…

Can it?

What an amazing Out to Play journey it has been at Dalmarnock and Battlefield primary schools. In the weeks since ending this project i’ve been constantly reminded of special moments with the brilliant children, teachers and nature I have shared this time with. It would be impossible to write even a fraction of them here, but I wanted to share some particularly important learnings that you might find interesting or useful. Out to Play is designed for delivery in particular contexts, but the learning from this project is invaluable for other projects, so I hope it will be of value. Nature doesn’t care about copyright, so use any ideas that are useful, and please do get in touch if you have any questions or curiosities.

On Bringing a Character Alive

During my rich and rewarding time at Dalmarnock primary I realised I wasn’t seen by the children an employee of a theatre company delivering outdoor drama sessions – I was Ben the explorer! When I arrived at Battlefield, I therefore decided to play with this persona a lot more, by remaining ‘in role’ throughout the seven weeks. I think it worked! One P3 teacher told her class to get their coats on for ‘drama’, and the class strongly corrected her, saying “Drama? Don’t you mean exploring?!” I think this approach has also given pupils permission to suspend their disbelief and dive more deeply into the imaginary worlds i’m inviting them into. On my first week with one P4 class, a pupil ecstatically marched through the playground wearing ‘nature binoculars’ (hands cupped around their eyes) exclaiming “this is my imagination… and i’m IN IT!” I think children see all adults as characters anyway, so it didn’t require much acting. Instead I used a few devices anyone can try out to add a bit of magic to your role as teacher, facilitator or educator:

Special Objects: I tried to be consistent by always carrying some ‘props’ that marked me out as a character, including explorer walking boots and a pocket watch. I also introduced special things I have discovered to inspire their imaginations, some exampled being an ostrich egg which I used to talk about beginnings, a badger skull to explore endings and giant redwood cone to introduce the concept of interconnectedness.

Personal Story: I constructed a clear role as a story explorer (not entirely untrue!) that travels through time (not entirely true!) This didn’t require acting, merely the capacity to talk about the kind of experiences I have had that are just a little bit too good to be true. On remembrance day, one P5 pupil asked me to give a message to his great grandfather who lost his life in WW1. Far from ‘lying’, I feel that giving permission to this world of magic in turn gives children the space to use their imaginations more and feel that their life is BIG and anything is possible… which i’m a strong believer in the importance of!

Simple Trickery: I used some theatrical devices that brought wonder to sessions, for example finding a magical way to arrive (I was summoned by unsuspecting pupils, flying into the classroom in a flurry of autumn leaves!), or transforming a pocket watch into a big clock which we used to travel back to the beginning of time. You could think about ways to hide something magic in the classroom to start an adventure, or have a special guest from a story you are reading send a letter or turn up when least expected. The element of surprise is key!

Constructing a World: It was important to ensure that my identity was coherent. Children will always try to find the truth in what is offered, and a good way to support this is to ensure consistency with the places that are being explored. If the imaginary worlds get muddled then the children’s capacity to create within it can be compromised. Rather than saying ‘oh look, it’s a dragon!’ why not define the edges of a landscape (e.g. a dark cave) and give them enough space and time to construct their own imaginary encounters?

On Being Opportunistic

In the natural world, a destructive force can be just the beginning. I’ve tried to practice using Out to Play as a chance to meet challenges and try to see what positives can come from them. I guess you could say it’s an attempt to practice the belief that despite the challenges, humans can make good of bad situations and use their imaginations to create something better (which we certainly need a lot of right now!)

Weather: This is the most simple and obvious of the lot, but when faced with all the rain, sleet and snow Glasgow can throw at us, it’s easy to portray it as ‘bad’ weather and cancel plans. I tried my best to reframe this, trying to stay positive and outside as much as possible. Of the 196 sessions this time around I only moved 4 indoors. The way teachers respond has a huge impact on the attitudes of pupils, so acting excited when the weather is wild is a simple way to encourage meeting challenges in a different way. I will never forget one brilliant teacher telling a story to her sheltered class (about the weather, ironically!) as she was rapidly drenched by a downpour. She just got on with it – one of my favourite Glaswegian qualities!

Storytelling: If there is a disruption whilst you are telling, try to bring it into the story rather than letting it take the focus of the children. Loud noises or moving vehicles can become soundscapes, or distracted pupils can become part of the landscape of the story who are invited to sit quietly and listen to the characters (“hush, can you hear her creeping through the forest?”) 9 times out of 10 a disruptive listener needs more participation, so why not ask them to stand beside you and give them special roles that are more participatory (“the moon hung in the sky and watched the whole thing”). Changing the quality of your voice also really helps to shift the attention back to the story. If all else fails you can pause and sing a song till the disruption passes!

Accidents: Sometimes a bad event can lead to something extraordinary. During my hardest day of Out to Play it was pouring with rain and the class were understandably distracted, so much so that when I passed around my special childhood ostrich egg it was quickly broken into pieces. It was very kindly replaced by the staff at Dalmarnock, but it took me a few weeks to realise that I therefore had two eggs. It was in my next residency at Battlefield that I revealed the unbroken one from my story box as a ‘once upon a time’. We then journeyed through the playground as animals that might emerge from its shell and created narratives that brought these stories to life. At the end of the session, a strange tapping sound emerged from the box (created using a wireless speaker), which was then opened to reveal a baby dragon that had hatched. This led to some wonderful conversations about how we take care of living things.

Picking up What is Offered:  Often children will say and do wonderful unexpected things. This is rich material that can be picked up to inspire lateral thinking and the wilder edges of imagination. In class it can be hard to find time for this, so mark out some imagination time and run with it! When asked to act out what might live in a forest, one of the most imaginative P2/1 pupils at Battlefield exclaimed “a lonely sock!” which she then acted out with panache! The next week a spontaneous scene emerged with her friend where they were dancing socks which weren’t lonely any more. As it is said in improv, the first rule of working together is ‘Yes, and…’ so far from blocking or diverting creative offerings, pick them up and see where they can take you!

On Beginnings and Endings

It was with great sadness that I ended this chapter of Out to Play, with a strong sense that the journeys we went on were only the beginning. There is so much that can be done in this rich weave of outdoor drama and storytelling, so 7 short hours with each child really only felt like scratching the surface. It therefore felt really important to bring the sessions to a close in a way that set in motion longer-term commitments and the possibility of ever more adventures to understand the amazing world we call home.

In order to weave together the strands of  the project, each class performed stories they had created themselves or enacted a traditional story with an environmental message. From a dating show where Mother Nature sought a cure for her affliction of ‘humanitis’, to a brilliantly dynamic sea story where 25 masked P2 fish cleared the oceans of plastic, their pieces were filled with insight, creativity and humour.

To close, we returned to the story tree and spoke about endings. How they make us feel and think about the journeys we’ve been on. I then asked them what ends in nature – a leaf falling from a tree, an animal dying, a raindrop hitting the floor – and whether that really is an ending or just a beginning?

The concept of circles is central to what I try to teach. So much of children’s experience is linear. The spaces they learn in, the stories they are told, even their conception of ‘growing up’, all are guiding them to a human centred idea of the world which isn’t reflected in the natural environment at all. Gently reframing this allows a philosophy of equality, care and interconnectedness to take its place in the centre again. It’s also a brilliant tool to think about how we ensure that learning continues after a project has come to an end.

Some questions to consider when thinking about legacy (most of which I hardly began to answer!)

  • How can each child leave a project feeling more capable, confident and excited to take the tools from the project into their lives?
  • What ways can the learning be extended into other areas e.g the indoor environment or other subjects of study?
  • How can parents and teachers be empowered to continue incorporating project elements into the future? Are resources required? Can ways of checking in on how things are going encourage more integration?
  • What creative ways can the spaces used in the project be set up in such a way that they continue to be used?
  • How can processes of evaluation support learning and not just funders?!

I’ve been blown away by the willingness and enthusiasm of the teaching and support staff i’ve worked alongside. It’s made my job so much easier to feel supported and encouraged along the way, and i’ve been really inspired by their care and commitment to the children they teach.

As I journey onto other projects, I’m left with a wish that all the children I have met see themselves as storytellers of their own lives. That they can shape their futures as well as a more sustainable collective future on Earth. And most of all that they never lose the incredible imaginations I have had the joy of adventuring alongside.

Keep exploring!

Ben Mali

My lasting memory of Battlefield, the children hard at play!

1 thought on “An Adventure Calls”

  1. I love this blog Ben 🙂 It brought to mind many adventurous memories from your time here at Battlefield. My class (and I) had an amazing time. A big highlight was when you had the children perform their own stories from their sticks! Wishing you many more imagination opening experiences. Now, where is that map….

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