Playful Parting: Reflections on 5.5 years of Out to Play, concluding at St. Martha’s Primary

Out to Play Blog by Sophie McCabe

Wow, five and a half years I have been gallivanting around playgrounds across schools in Glasgow, and a lot has happened in the world, and for the project, over that time!

As I finish my final time delivering school residencies with Eco Drama’s Out to Play project, here are a few brief observations about how to embrace taking children outdoors and igniting their creativity and interest in the natural world.

I’d also like to thank the staff and pupil’s at St. Martha’s Primary school, who undertook a winter residency during January-February. This had it its challenges, not only due to the continual effects of a covid wave, but there was some particularly harsh weather. However, the staff and pupils embarked on the project with smiles and enthusiasm and embraced the elements.

And a big shout out to St. Martha’s Janitor, John who took time to improve a special ‘Story Tree /Den’ much to the excitement of pupils and staff alike! What a difference that will make for outdoor learning at the school in future.

As the rest of Glasgow cowered indoors, brave St. Martha’s Teachers encouraged their pupils to enjoy the magical snow day. Here pupils are doing footstep following trails. What an amazing childhood memory and way to engage pupils in our natural world.

“We’re Not Going Out in THAT Are We?” …

In almost every school I have led ‘Out to Play’ residencies at, at the beginning, there have been moans, groans (and even a few tears) from either pupils, staff, or I’ll admit it, even me, when looking at the Scottish Weather and doing a project that is ‘All weather where safely possible’.

So, if we as adults know the positive effect that outdoor learning and interaction with nature can have on our mental heath and wellbeing, not to mention a whole host of other benefits, why do we as a culture in the UK still often revert to seeing the outdoor elements as a negative?

Pupils playing warm up games at St. Martha’s

Do You Remember ‘Playing Out’ back in your day?

We are all increasingly aware of evidence for young people in the benefits of controlled ‘risky play’ and ‘outdoor learning’ but it can still feel very daunting to leave the safety and familiarity and essentially controlled environment of the classroom.

A number of factors seem to influence how we see the outdoors as adults who work with young people; health and safety, rules and regulations, staff to pupil ratios, provision (or lack of) of appropriate support for pupils with additional learning needs, suitable clothing, weather warnings, vandalism in playgrounds and parks, and these are just a few examples of real concerns staff deal with.

Personally I’ve also noticed, even within myself, a cultural issue to do with fear of the unpredictable wild outdoors, mixed with managing large groups of children / behaviour and safety. I feel as city parents we are obliged to teach children about multiple dangers that sadly exist in their local outdoor spaces, from broken glass to dog dirt to fast cars, and it can be hard to strike a balance between keeping them safe and encouraging play in nature. I know with my own journey as a parent, I’ve been guilty of transferring anxiety about very real hazards, so it’s definitely a tricky one when you have up to 33 children running wild.

Not to mention that some of us as adults just prefer to be cozy indoors!

However, if you’ve risk assessed an area and made sure children are wrapped up and prepared, we’ve seen year on year the children gain so many benefits from creative play and learning outdoors.

Staff at St. Martha’s and I discussed how we as adults need to model a positive attitude to unpredictable weather if we want to provide engaging experiences outdoors. The same also applies to getting up and trying out drama and storytelling. If we are willing to play along and have a go, children are more willing to try something out of their comfort zone.

I’m pleased to say that by weeks four and five of any Out to Play residency I’ve delivered over the last 5.5 years, children are overwhelmingly keen to get outside, some of them saying ‘Miss are we doing this every week now?’ and at St Martha’s recently ‘can this be our story den for every week?’.

Pupils showing the Birds’ Nest they made out of found natural materials

“It’s like a Real Life Computer Game!”

I’ve heard many children cry excitedly when myself or their teacher sets them off outdoors on any sort of treasure hunt or interactive game, or when they take a look at our re-imagined map of the playground. In my experience, it seems a lot of today’s children are very accustomed to playing in imaginary worlds via a screen, but not so much in their own playground. It was really lovely to see the simplest of things, such as a hunt for seashells around the grounds, or following footsteps in the snow, get such an enthusiastic reaction from the children.

Nature really lends itself to imaginative play, so I’d encourage anyone wanting to experiment with drama, storytelling and play to consider doing so outside or in natural settings. You don’t need fancy or expensive set and props when children can create wonderful stories, worlds and ideas from a simple tree or a fallen leaf!

Classes really enjoyed story time under the Big Tree – who didn’t enjoy secret Dens in nature as a child?

We Are ALL Storytellers (especially teachers)…

The Drama Artists working on the Out to Play project have been tasked with inspiring and encouraging primary school and ASN teaching and support staff to try outdoor drama and storytelling and lead their own sessions in the ‘Out to Play’ style at the end of the residency.

It’s been amazing to see the talent and skills of the staff I have worked with on this project over the past five and half years and I thank every single one of them for welcoming me into their school, putting time and effort into the project and for helping me grow my practice as a drama artist.

At St. Martha’s Primary during Teacher Week, despite various staff having been recently off due to Covid and the harsh Winter weather, we had an array of beautifully told stories, almost entirely told from memory (well done, team!). Pupils were transfixed by the stories of nature, folklore and some religious stories from the Catholic faith, all of which teach lessons about compassion for humans, animals and plants.

I’ve learnt that we are all storytellers, and a little confidence and opportunity to use this skill goes a long way in a school setting.

Storytelling is such a pivotal tool in our kit as educators and artists and it would be such as shame to let this ancient medium die out. We’ve used folklore and nature tales from all over the world during my time on the project, and children of all ages and backgrounds’ eyes light up like nothing else as they huddle in to hear the tale.

The Playground is a Place for Learning too!

If you browse back through our previous Out to Play blogs, you’ll see that we’ve worked in the most concrete, bare and unsheltered of playgrounds as well as those with access to green spaces, trees and even forests. One thing I’ve found in common with all of these schools is we’ve had to work on changing pupils’ approach to the outdoors to ‘I come here to run around and play at break’ (which is also very important) to, ‘this is a place where we can learn’.

My previous blogs and our ‘Out to Play’ resource packs go into further techniques for outdoor learning, but a key message I’d emphasise is :

Be ready for activities to go in a totally different way than they would indoors, and embrace the unpredictability!

Pupils presenting scenes to each other showing different drama stagecraft skills during Teacher Week at St. Martha’s

All The World’s A Stage!

Taking Drama outdoors was honestly quite far out of my comfort zone when I came on board with Out to Play. As drama artists, we are used to being in gym halls, community centres and generally theatre is associated with indoor venues. Of course, outdoor theatre is a fantastic medium but the actual drama workshop element taking place outdoors (rather than just subjects like P.E) was as new to me as it has been for many of our participating teachers.

Aside from the challenges and distractions that can come from the typical Scottish weather, the enjoyment and inventiveness pupils have shown in their playgrounds is phenomenal. Pupils’ have created presentations, stories, songs, movement, adverts, news reports, magical nature spells and so much more, all in the outdoors, connecting their natural surroundings with their classmates.

There is something about being out in the fresh air, and able to see the nature we are learning about, that I feel can never be matched by any picture on a projector or computer screen. You do have to think ahead, have wet weather plans, make sure pupils are dressed appropriately, but you will see the benefits both in and out of the classroom.

Pupils Presenting Bird Themed Presentations about different species

Finally…. I’d like to say thank you and good luck on your adventures to my final residency school St. Martha’s, and well done to all of the pupils and staff who have come Out to Play with me over this project. Happy Adventures!

1 thought on “Playful Parting: Reflections on 5.5 years of Out to Play, concluding at St. Martha’s Primary”

  1. Well, that was fabulous.

    Loved to see our kids and staff held up in such high esteem.

    Our challenge now is to sustain the enthusiasm for outdoor learning across the months and years to come.

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