My time at Aultmore Park and Scotstoun Primaries, and Reflecting upon My First Year with Out to Play

By Saffron Gillies.

In Autumn of 2022 I was invited to lead Out to Play residencies at Aultmore Park Primary and at Scotstoun Primary. These residencies effectively marked the 1 year anniversary of my joining Eco Drama and the Out to Play Project. Over the course of this year I have been incredibly lucky to work with hundreds of children across Glasgow in primary schools and nursery settings, along with many, many fantastic teachers and practitioners. I have had highs and lows, dealt with all kinds of weather, and I’ve certainly learned a lot in the process. In this blog, I reflect upon these two latest residencies, and consider the ways that my practice has developed over the course of this year – and where it may be heading in the future.

I joined this project with a huge passion for storytelling, for socially engaged and participatory projects, and for the conservation of our planet. What I admittedly didn’t have, was a strong sense of connectedness to nature. One thing I’ve noticed in the past year is how much my own connection to nature has grown as a result of spending so much time outside. Emerging from lockdown, during which I spent the vast majority of my time indoors (I can vividly recall phoning my mum and telling her there was no way I could go outside because of the rain), this project has transformed the ways that I see the immediate world around me.  Often, while facilitating Out to Play sessions I take on the character of an explorer, and I feel I’ve become something of a real explorer myself while travelling all over Glasgow to deliver this work. In my travels I’ve been struck by how much nature truly surrounds us in this city – I notice more colour, more sound, more creatures than I once did. It is a real privilege to share this with the children I’ve worked with on this project. 

Under a Magical Tree at Scotstoun Primary

Getting out into nature can be such a sensory experience – from the feeling of rain on our faces, or cold fingers, to the sound of a bird call, or the smell of a flower. So here I’ll share my favourite nature connection activity to start us off – 

Deer Ears

Can you think of an animal with tiny ears? How about huge ones? 

Some animals, like deer for example, can swivel their ears in order to hear more of what’s going on around them. While human ears tend to stay put, we can create our own deer ear listening experience with the help of our hands.

Take your hands and cup them behind your ears, like you’re using your hands to make your ears bigger. If you do this outside you may notice that you can hear the sounds in front of you more clearly, you may even notice sounds that you didn’t before! Then, turn your hands the opposite way and place them in front of your ears. Now you may notice that you can hear less of what’s in front of you, and more of what’s behind you. You’re listening like a deer!

Try out listening in both directions for a few seconds, notice what nature sounds you hear. Wherever you are in the world nature is there with you, even if your jungle is more concrete than verdant.

Aultmore Park and Scotstoun Primaries

At Aultmore Park and Scotstoun Primaries, I had the chance to deliver some of the work I’ve spent the year honing, and to delve deeper into the project’s potential, adapting my previous plans and creative choices to appeal to returning adventurers.

At Aultmore Park I worked with P1, P3 and 4/3, and P6 and 6/5. At Scotstoun I worked with P2, P3 and P4. Uniquely, at Scotstoun the P2 and P3 classes had all taken part in the Out to Play project with myself in term 2 of the previous year, and so I had the opportunity with these groups to drill further into our natural world, and to try out some new stories and ideas. Meanwhile, with P6 and 6/5 at Aultmore Park, I aimed to adapt my favourite framework, the quest for Mother Nature’s Powers, to cover more aspects of our natural world, and in particular to bring in more of a focus on soil and earth.

What themes were explored in these residencies?

Over the sessions I worked with classes and teachers to explore themes including; soil and food production, trees and deforestation, water and ocean conservation, rain and the water cycle, biodiversity and the web of life, the seasons and their significance.

What were some of the highlights of these residencies?

Putting on a Performance at Aultmore Park

There have been plenty of truly delightful moments. Here I’ll highlight some moments for me which demonstrated the power of the imagination in outdoor learning, and a handful of moments that made me smile.

  • Responding to the nature around us. “I can hear the trees speaking!” (Miss McInespie asks, “what are they saying?”) “I don’t know, I can’t speak tree!” – Pupil in P4/3 at Aultmore Park. If there was ever a quote to sum up the power of imagination in outdoor learning, this is it for me!
  • P6 and 6/5 pupils at Aultmore Park really getting into imaginative exploration, and responding to my teacher in role persona of the explorer. I was often asked questions about my experiences as an explorer, ranging from “what countries have you been to?” and “what’s the farthest away that you’ve travelled?” to “have you ever skydived?”
  • P6 pupils responses to a story demonstrating the power of storytelling. After I told the Nigerian tale “Why the Sky is Far Away”, which tells of a woman so greedy that the sky (which had once provided the people with all the food they could wish for), floated away out of reach in disgust, a P6 pupil poignantly reflected “a lot of people are like that in our society today”.
  • P3 pupils at Scotstoun vividly remembering the stories I had told them, and activities we had taken part in, not just from this most recent residency, but also from the previous year! Ms Mochan asked her class to reflect on the residency at the end of her teacher-led session in week 5 – I was struck by how well the pupils remembered each story I had told (from their feedback I can tell that the South Asian folktale “The King with Dirty Feet” and the Scottish story “Saving the Forest” were two particular favourites). But, not only this, Ms Cross and Ms Mochan both told the Choctaw story “How Grandmother Spider Brought Fire” to their classes in week 5, a story I had told the year before – I was amazed at the detail in which pupils remembered the story they had first heard so long ago, it made me very proud and honestly a little emotional.
  • Pupils getting involved in silliness! Exploring climate change and the challenges which face our natural world can be overwhelming. It’s important to me to honour the optimism of this project, and to promote a sense of wonder for our planet, rather than a sense of despair. Drama can often be silly, and why shouldn’t it be? If silliness can help foster a love of our planet then in my opinion it’s just as valid as solemnity. One of my favourite silly scenes created was by a group of P3 pupils and  titled “Where does a butterfly go to do the toilet?”– they had us all in hysterics!
  • Sharing pomegranate seeds with P4 pupils. P4 teachers at Scotstoun took on the Greek Myth of Hades and Persephone for their week 5 sessions, and one class even got to taste some pomegranate seeds at the end of the session. It felt like a lovely, relaxed and communal way to celebrate and be grateful for the gifts of the world around us. I was surprised by how popular the crunchy texture was among the pupils!
  • Seeing a pupil delight in playing a game alongside their teacher. A P2 pupil partnered up with their teacher Mrs Butler at Scotstoun to create different animal shapes (one of my favourite drama activities!) – their laughter and excitement at getting to make silly shapes with their teacher, and to climb on her back (with permission!) was pretty magical.
  • Imaginative play with primary 1! When exploring magic foods, we pretended to be on a farm – running all over feeding the chickens and shearing the sheep. When I asked one class what animal we should visit next one of the pupils cried out “a moose!” and so after a quick discussion about what a moose was, suddenly we were all moose farmers looking after a giant creature.

What have been opportunities for further development?

  • Fantasy and Imagination in Upper Primary. As Sarah eloquently wrote about in her blog reflecting on her time at Royston Primary, some older children can struggle to access their imagination and to let themselves relax and have fun in the sessions. Sometimes the need to protect or create our self-image, at that crucial age where we begin to experience feelings of self-consciousness can make getting involved in drama challenging. One of the ways I tried to ease the transition into drama and play in week 1  of the residencies was by getting hands on with some messy play and sculpting. We focused on earth in week 1, both in terms of soil, and in the larger sense of Earth the planet as a provider and carer. Following the story, we created earth spirit creatures using natural clay, and other nature materials like leaves, stones and sticks found around the playground. I felt this activity was successful in meeting its aims and supporting some of the pupils to engage creatively in the project as a stepping stone to then exploring more through drama in the following weeks. Going forward, I wonder if I can develop my project framework for older classes to become a little more relatable, and let the fantasy come from them when they’re ready.
  • Settling into Primary 1. Mrs Barclay, Miss Leary and myself reflected on the challenges for children of moving into P1, following our week 4 CPD. It’s a hugely exciting time but also an exhausting time! Class teachers reflected that in term 1, a slightly shorter session may be better suited to some P1 classes, and this is something we can take forward to future schools to consider.
Primary 1 taking part in Mrs Barclay’s Exploring Session

One of the key ideas I’ve sought to promote in my work throughout this year is the idea that everything in our world is connected. Ultimately as I reflect on these most recent residencies, and on my year with Eco Drama as a whole I’m struck by the potential of this project to create meaningful shared experiences – connections –  between pupils, their teachers, the drama artists who work with them and the world around us. Both in terms of the immediate world we can access every day, and the wider world of which we are all an important part. 

As I look forward and consider where I’m heading with my own artistic practice in relation to this project, I am considering ways to reframe challenges as opportunities, and to allow my work to evolve and change like the seasons. These most recent residencies have offered me an opportunity to try out new session themes, topics and activities, and I am energised to carry on exploring and discovering the new ways in which I can take this work.

I’d like to finish this blog with a huge thank you to the staff and pupils at Aultmore Park and Scotstoun Primaries for coming exploring with me.