Out to Play’s Second Journey Begins at Dalmarnock!

by Ben Mali Macfadyen

It was a quiet September morning at Dalmarnock primary. The children were settled in their classrooms, bows perched on heads like butterflies, heads full of stories and dreams. Everything was as expected. But as the hours passed, a hoolie began to blow through the corridors. Whispers of excitement and confusion, chirps which echoed like a sky full of swallows… playground gossip of a story box, a treasure map, and a strange adventurer called Ben…

What a joy it is to return to Glasgow, Eco Drama and the Out to Play project. I arrived from the isle of Mull with my bike laden with bags full of stories and magic objects (including a huge blue parachute and a giant egg!) Ready to build on my work back in 2015, whilst being open to the discoveries of new schools and their creative potential. It’s also been a real joy to work with Emily and Nina of Eco Drama, and to have a creative partner in crime in the form of Sophie McCabe, who i’ve already learnt a great deal from through our time planning and reflecting together.

I began my first week at Dalmarnock bumbling my way into eagerly awaiting classrooms carrying an old treasure box and instructions to take each class on a storytelling adventure. Heading out in all weathers, we gathered around an imaginary campfire to remember that all life journeys in circles, sharing some of what we know about the natural world, before setting off on all sorts of exciting journeys…

Between then and now, we’ve sailed as pirates on the Enchanted Loch; built great sand castles in the Desert to Dreams; journeyed through time from the formation of Earth to the birth of Dalmarnock, across seasons and weathers, bogs, mountains and the underground world where Scottish faeries live. We’ve navigated with compasses, identified native trees, moved as different animals to understand their roles and classifications; we’ve discovered the great Awongalema story tree, the truth of where fire comes from (stolen by coyote from the fire creatures) and met Tiddalik, the aboriginal dreamtime toad who drank all the water of the world. We’ve created tales of animals and their mysterious origins to share with each other – of why the unicorn is Scottish, why the baboon has a red bottom, why the monkey is so courageous. It’s been a journey of wonder and laughter, curiosity and collaboration… and a lochload of energy and noise!

When I embarked on the pilot Out to Play project in 2015, my approach was inspired by the Socrates phrase ‘wisdom begins with wonder’. I think that desire for learning comes when one is curious, and the best pathway to curiosity at any age is imagination. The scale of ecological destruction we are facing is critical, and unless people have a relationship with the natural world, they will have no desire to protect it. The unique combination of storytelling and outdoor play that Eco Drama is pioneering is one small step towards a more sustainable future, whilst being a lot of fun too!

I learnt so much back then about how to access curiosity at a primary age, and have since developed a workshop structure that begins with wonder, moving into excitement and inspiration (Spring – active games, nature exploring, storytelling) then to collaboration (Autumn – developing group performances) and ending with celebration and reflection (Winter – sharing and witnessing each other, saying thank you). So far this feels like it has real potential to not only take classes on inspiring and fulfilling learning adventures, but to create a simple structure for teachers and educators to take drama and other learning possibilities outside.

A few reflections and learnings from the journey so far:

  • Setting up something out of the ordinary in the school will instil every class with a touch of magic – e.g. placing a false door in a wall: who lives behind there? What stories can be found if you journey through?
  • Often the simplest interventions are the most powerful – a slight twist on reality that leaves space for the imagination.
  • Even the top end of primary will willingly journey into the imagination, and often create the most amazing responses from their creations when given permission.
  • When a story is told by a teacher from memory rather than read from a book it comes alive in whole new amazing ways.
  • Having a strong structure to outdoor sessions is essential, e.g. always starting with the same actions, or using different spaces for different qualities of activity (quiet reflection spaces should never be energetic game playing ones!)
  • Asking questions as a fellow learner rather than ‘the one that knows’ is a powerful shift within outdoor learning – “why do YOU think the leaves fall in the autumn? How could you find out?”
  • Mixing fact with story can be sticky territory. So far i’m veering towards encouraging imagination rather than correcting it!

I will end with a highlight from yesterday:

Blindfolding a P4 for a listening game, I asked the class which sense the ‘heron’ would be using instead of sight to catch the fish – One child put their hand out and declared “a sense of humour!”

Despite the moments of chaotic disruption, the breaking of my childhood heirloom ostrich egg, the downpours when half the class don’t have coats… there really is nothing to be done but laugh, and i’m constantly remembering what a joy and inspiration it is to work amongst 450 incredible imaginations come rain or shine!

If you have questions or thoughts, please do leave a comment. These children are the best teachers and i’m learning every day how to guide them well, so your reflections are really helpful.

Until next time, keep exploring!