Week 10: The Story of Stuff

“Everything comes from the Earth… and everything goes back to the Earth”

Jane Flood, a master storyteller and mentor, once imparted those words of wisdom to me. It’s a powerful lesson we can see all around us. Life flourishes from its depths and will one day return. Or as one P2 boy wisely put it – “the grass is eaten by the antelope, the antelope is eaten by the lion, and when the lion dies it goes back to the ground and becomes the grass again… it’s the circle of life!”

But what about all the things that humans have created? The mobile phones, trainers and plastic bottles… do they come from the Earth too? And what happens when we are done with them… where do they go?

This weeks out to play sessions were called ‘The Story of Stuff’, inspired by the amazing video by Annie Leonard. If you haven’t seen it already definitely check it out here. I wanted to take the opportunity to widen the children’s awareness of natural cycles beyond trees and animals, to see the bigger story of Earth and humanity, whilst hopefully instilling the awareness to act in ways that don’t mindlessly cause it’s destruction.

I started the session with the question “What is nature?”

“Flowers”… “Trees”… “Animals”… “Water”…

“Well then”, I asked, “Are we nature? … Why not? If I am nature and you are nature then is a plastic bottle nature too? … And if we are nature, then how is us making a bottle different from a tree making a leaf?”

It was great reframing ideas of what is natural, creating a space for discussion and broadening the field of our nature-based work.

With the younger ones we then sat in a circle and played a simple game where I brought out a box that I told them was full of very old and precious objects… before revealing a plastic bottle. I then passed it around the circle followed by many other plastic objects – foam, a drinking straw, bubble wrap, netting fabric etc, encouraging them to play with the movements, sounds and characters that the objects wanted to make. They LOVED this… way beyond my expectations. We could have done it for the whole hour! There was something special about being given permission to play, make noise, engage the senses, laugh, and anticipate the objects that were to follow.

With the older ones I introduced the objects and then played a stellar improvisation game to develop lateral thinking (which children do effortlessly anyway!) Holding a plastic bottle I declared “This is not a plastic bottle, this is a….” and mimed using the bottle as something else, like a mobile phone, which the class all shouted out their guesses as to what it was. The bottle is passed around with the same introduction and endless possible transformations. This game was great for giving quieter children space to be acknowledged by the group, and supported the journey of thinking about objects differently.

Next, I took the classes on a performed storytelling journey of the “lifecycle” of a plastic bottle. We started millions of years ago as under water creatures, whose bodies changed through time into oil, before being sucked back to the surface and transformed into plastic bottles. As we journeyed through the playground we embodied different elements or played games to understand the journey better. To show the factory production we played a great game where one child creates the sound and movement of a machine, which is then joined by more and more children until you have created a production line of noises and funny movements. This machine could be sped up or slowed down, allowing them to develop control over their movements and feel part of the group performance. This was a great exercise for groups as young as P2.

Although I am happy overall with this process, I found that for some of the younger ones the ideas were at times a little too abstract. When we journeyed to the bins after embarking on the journey from sea creatures to bottles, Eric, a brilliant lively P1 boy exclaimed, “I never knew you could recycle fish!”

The rest of the session was a puppetry workshop, inspired by a performance I made with Feral Theatre (www.feraltheatre.co.uk) last year about our relationship with plastic. A few years ago I was training in puppetry and I looked out of the window to see a young girl dancing in the wind with a plastic bag. She moved with the object as if they were one, and I realised then that to her the bag was not inanimate; it was alive just as you or I are.

In the classes I offered everyone a plastic object they wished to bring to life and asked them to find it a spot for their creature to sleep. They then gave their puppet breath, slowly inhaling and exhaling in time with moving the object. Their focus of many at this stage was amazing. I then counted down from 3 to wake up their plastic creatures. The moment of waking was hilarious. Seeing 30 rubbish objects simultaneously leap from the ground after peacefully sleeping in an ecstatic flurry of noise and joy was just brilliant. Their creatures explored, ate, fought, nested… suddenly they weren’t plastic any more. They weren’t disposable. They were alive just as they had once been underwater millions of years ago. They had their own journeys and stories, their own personalities and voices. What I witnessed in those sessions was the re-animation of rubbish and it gave me hope that the people of the future will no longer treat our world as disposable.