A Ray of Sunshine amid the Storm ~ Out to Play at St. Saviour’s Primary

2020 has been a pretty unique year. My first work after the initial lockdown was delivering the Out to Play project in a specialist complex needs setting during September & October 2020. If you’re interested you can read about this here – Out of Lockdown and Out to Play at East Park School.  Luckily, I was then able to deliver a second Out to Play residency during October & November 2020 in a mainstream school with the pupils and teachers at St. Saviour’s Primary School in Govan. It is really exciting that the Out to Play project could largely go ahead in its original form this autumn in school playgrounds, with only a few tweaks required to happen in order to stay in line with covid guidance. To get an idea about the Out to Play project in 2020, and in general, please check out a news post here or the mini documentary here.

Socially Distanced Drama?

As my fellow Out to Play drama artist Sarah Rankin has mentioned in her previous blog All the more reason to go out to play, these have been challenging, stressful and confusing times for all of us.  Frontline school staff have not only had a long break in the children’s education to catch up with, but constantly changing guidance / local restrictions to stay on top of as well as a general anxiety we all feel about the pandemic.  Similar to Sarah, my approach to running drama workshops and storytelling has always involved being friendly and relaxed, and drama games have involved plenty of physical contact.  I couldn’t help feel a bit nervous about how to run the workshops with all of the covid restrictions to think about.  As an audience member recently said (in a chat I was asked to host on “The Great Outdoors” for Youth Theatre Arts Scotland’s I Heart YT Festival), “Drama is a contact Sport”!

Luckily, I am pleased to say that we did find plenty of creative games and exercises that can happen outdoors, without lots of close physical contact, especially between myself (the adult at a 2m distance) and the children, who were not required to socially distance within their class bubble.  We also decided to really minimise props and hands-on resources in light of covid, where possible, and focus on using the children’s imaginations even more than we usually would in a typical Out to Play residency.  And what imaginations the children showed!  We had several children commenting “it felt strange because I don’t usually use my imagination” at the start of the project, and throughout the 5 weeks I witnessed so many amazing stories, ideas and performances, proving that they all certainly could and do have active and wonderfully limitless imaginations.  We have known the benefits of the Out to Play project since it was first piloted in 2015, but this year felt particularly special to be able to deliver it largely as we hoped in the midst of a global pandemic.  With school staff actively seeking new, creative ways to get pupils learning outdoors, the project took centre stage in supporting the school to do this, which felt incredibly positive.

Imagination, creativity and outdoor play are proven to foster positive mental health, wellbeing and resilience in children and young people, and in these difficult times the need for children not only to play as children should, but to imagine a more positive, hopeful world and future in which they can make a difference, felt so important.  Participation in drama and storytelling can improve children’s social skills, self esteem and confidence,  and the teachers noticed that many pupils came out of their shell as the weeks went on. Not only that but learning about and encouraging care for our natural world felt very prominent while the world was in crisis, and a positive legacy from Out to Play is helping children to see that they can be positive change makers in the future of their school environment and wider community.

Younger pupils showed excellent imagination in creating creatures from natural materials in Teacher Week

With Change We Can Grow…

It’s always good to keep yourself on your toes and step out of that cosy comfort zone! Although we have built a fantastic bank of Out to Play project resources and blogs since 2015,  I decided to learn a couple of new stories this year to keep my storytelling practice on the go. We often use ‘Teacher in Role’ to engage the children’s imaginations, so I also tried a character called a ‘Story Explorer’ when I arrived at the school as I wanted to get away from some popular ideas about explorers being people who perhaps chop down trees and carry weapons to hunt when we’re trying to focus on looking after the planet (Indiana Jones… if that is still a current reference, or more likely video games?!). Something I found that worked well with younger kids was implying that you, the storyteller, just might be a character in the story, which is a more subtle way of using ‘teacher in role’ if you don’t feel comfortable with donning a full scale costume and character. Though teacher in role can be used in gentle ways too, be it a simple hat or jacket which you put on, that signifies you are someone different for this particular session, and this usually adds a nice touch of magic and heightens interest.

Learning about trees using movement and drama

We packed our adventure bags and trekked around the playground using an imaginary playground map (an Out to Play firm favourite for our first week) and re-imagined the playground spaces as misty mountains, faerie forests, jungles and secret meadows. The children were encouraged to first express what they could see in reality and then create in their imagination a whole new world, and to capture this as a photograph taken with their magical ‘explorer’s camera’.  We became a group of intrepid story explorers, searching for the nature tales which the playground could tell us, and that we could tell each other.  Once classes had got used to the idea of having to listen carefully to stories over the sound of a nearby main road and a busy playground, children really started to get into the tales of talking mountains, Ghillie Dhu Faeries, Witches of Fife, Life-Giving Trees, Little Raindrops, Selkies and more.

St Saviour’s playground map

Children and young people have certainly shown themselves to be adaptable and resilient during this year, and the pupils at St. Saviour’s did such a great job at learning new ways of behaving that kept us all safe while still having fun and learning.  This unfortunate time has forced us all into different ways of approaching our lives and our work,  but these circumstances and restrictions have also encouraged creativity and innovation.

I’d like to say a HUGE well done and THANK YOU to the endlessly upbeat, compassionate, kind and hard-working staff at St. Saviour’s primary school for taking part so enthusastically in Out to Play in these exceptional circumstances!  Having an extra project come in on top of existing commitments and all of the covid challenges could have been seen as an additional workload, but I was made to feel so welcome and really felt the staff were enthusiastic about taking the Out to Play ideas forward in their school.

Teachers with their ‘Golden Leaf Awards’ on Week 5! All teachers receive informal feedback on their own Week 4 session & share their learning with each other

Teachers Take The Reins of the Adventure!

Out to Play has a strong CPD element woven through a 5 week playground residency, providing teachers with inspiration, resources and ideas to build confidence in taking classes outdoors using creative learning. Through drama, storytelling, play and imagination, the work connects with nature on our doorstep and explores relevant sustainability topics. Teachers participate in all four weeks of the drama artist’s creative outdoor sessions and then in week five, after a tailored planning session, are encouraged to take over and run their own take on an ‘Out to Play’ session. Click here for information about resources we use to support our work with teachers.

But the learning is mutual! I always learn a lot from working alongside teachers, who are of course experts in their particular class and with a huge bank of skills and knowledge to bring to the table.  The CPD element is really a ‘you get out what you put in’ element of the project and is designed to meet each individual teacher and school at their current stage – so if they have no storytelling or outdoor experience, we work from that, but if they have a lot of drama or storytelling experience, we explore how they can develop these even further, or focus on developing their nature connection skills or engagement with learning for sustainability, so there is always loads of possibilities for making the CPD element really exciting and tailored. I felt it was a great success at St. Saviour’s with teachers really going for it! The ‘Out to Play’ approach was embraced by the staff including things like play-based learning, teacher in role, extended role-play, creative use of playground areas, learning through drama and devising scenes, creative storytelling and a variety of nature / eco topics were explored during teacher week, from Seasons to Oceans to Animal Cruelty.  It was amazing to see how much the pupils enjoyed seeing their teachers get involved in playing along with imaginative games and storytelling and even becoming different characters, their eyes lit up!  The teachers who led Out to Play sessions really got behind the approach, and there was so much creativity, with a brand new story being written about climate change.

Tips for Creative Outdoor Learning, inspired by the staff at St. Saviour’s Primary School:

1. Use what you have in your playground, AND in your imagination…

Not all schools have greenery in the playground, but you can always find something natural, even if it’s a pigeon flying past or bringing in some pine cones or twigs to a concrete playround. And since we had access to the vast Govan Campus playground, we really used the different areas to ignite the children’s imaginations and bring the nature topics alive. Look for natural materials and find ways to make your playground imaginative.  Make sure you are all dressed for the weather and not scared of getting a bit muddy!

Children explore what we called the ‘Faerie Forest’ trees searching for magical creatures

2. Play Along…

Drama artists working on Out to Play encourage children to get into different roles, for example Explorers on a jungle trek, and we do this by modelling it ourselves, but that’s a bit easier for us as a visitor who isn’t responsible for all other aspects of the children’s learning and wellbeing.  Adults playing on an equal level with children in a school setting can sometimes be a difficult to achieve, because of how much teachers usually have to oversee in terms of pupil to adult ratios, behaviour, the curriculum, not to mention the added health and safety concerns at the moment. Yet still the staff managed to get involved in playing games, singing songs, and even taking on characters in the stories and adventures.  Watching the teachers go for it was really magical for the children and helped them feel confident and relaxed to leave behind any embarrasment or nerves about taking part in drama.

2. Embrace the Scottish Weather, and Dress for It! 

This was particularly important during November so we had to encourage children to dress up in warm, rain-proof layers and brave the elements of Scottish Autumn.  The teachers and I had to demonstrate a really positive approach to the weather, and as we discussed, the rain is such a huge part of our eco system that we need as much as any other weather, so the element of embracing all weathers and finding the positive in every seasonal change is so important to model when heading outdoors.

Stormy Seas Games with p5 in Teacher Week – coincidentally Mr Prentice had an actual storm to contend with that day but didn’t let that stop the fun and games!

4. Get Creative with Storytelling…

Teachers are already performers, we discussed, but sometimes we can all feel nervous about storytelling, especially in a different environment outwith the safety of the quiet classroom.  Aural storytelling is part of our Scottish and global heritage and history, but in this technological age, we might not find that all children are being told stories on a regular basis, especially in an outdoor setting.  Teachers really pushed their storytelling skills at St. Saviour’s, utilising both the Out to Play Resource Pack stories, finding their own, and even writing their own, tying into big issues such as climate change! The staff used a wide array of imaginative props and took children on memorable journeys around the playground, and even got into character!  It was wonderful to see the children’s eyes light up as their teachers drew them into the world of the story and also to hear their reflections on the learning.

Mr Mallon & Mrs Leitch staged a full scale interactive performance of The Kelpies Story which captivated p7 in the traditional tale

Just check out the school’s brilliant Twitter Feed for many more excellent snaps and videos of what the pupils got up to.  This is a great example for other schools, as you can see that the staff have been doing loads of outdoor learning, not only in creative subjects, but linking across the curriculum and with the whole school.  It is excellent to see how the staff have pushed the ideas further and how much fun the children are having learning creatively outdoors.

Another huge Thank You and well done to everyone at St. Saviour’s Primary School for embracing the Out to Play project so whole heartedly, top gold stars for attitude in these tough times!  I really enjoyed working with the staff and pupils and long may their fantastic adventures continue!

By Sophie McCabe, December 2020