Week 2: Erysichthon, the magical story tree and a lot of soggy feet!

Another full week of adventures on the Out to Play journey.

This time I chose to explore the importance of trees… not just as a resource for our use but as magical dwellings of life, learning and adventure. Myth was the gateway to understanding. I used a number of different creative tools with the intention of taking each child on a journey from disconnection to fascination and care.

Now it should be said at this point that most of the schools have only a handful of trees… and one of them doesn’t have any at all. Luckily children need nothing but imagination to create vast forests in concrete playgrounds! Chalk was the tool for the younger ones, using their creativity to draw huge trees together on the playground with all the creatures, leaves, roots and weather that they could imagine within them. It was amazing seeing how effortlessly they created worlds of colour and diversity.

With the older ones we started with a beanbag thrown across the circle to bring focus and connection, voicing different categories: names, birds, mammals… TREES! I was impressed by how many species the classes knew collectively.

With many of the groups I then used mime to explore the importance of trees, why they liked them and what they did for our environments, as well as all the amazing things we create from them. On quite a few occasions children named a value of trees as being “to cut down”. “What would you want to cut them down for?” I asked them, hoping for a reflection on the many uses of wood for humans, but none of those who said this could think of anything. It was as if their conception of trees was mainly felling, deforestation and destruction, without even knowing why, or what the wood could then be made in to.

But can we really expect any different of children in the 21st century? When 36 football fields of forest disappear every minute globally and most urban nature is condemned to fly-tipped verges and under visited or private parks, how can young people grasp just how essential trees are for the water cycle, soil quality, habitats, even our ability to breathe… not to mention what incredible climbing frames they are?! This session was an attempt to understand some of these interconnections.

One of the schools I’m in is lucky enough to have a small copse of trees. We explored connecting with them in different way by ‘meeting a tree’ blindfolded and coming to know it intimately before removing the blindfold and having to identify which theirs was. This involved quite active support from me, ensuring everyone was safe as well as gently guiding their exploration of the trees and their unique contours and angles. “This is your special tree now”, I said at the end, after all 30 of them amazingly found them again. “It is your job to see how the spring transforms it, and to thank it for the life it gives.” At the end of the session, one pupil came up to me to ask if he could come and water his tree at lunch time. I get the sense more and more that most of these children are so hungry for this sort of connection, and yet rarely get the opportunity.

The second half of the sessions were storytelling adventures. For the younger ones I told the Zimbabwean folk tale of the magical tree “Awongalema”, and the animals that forgot to sing the song of the tree because they were too busy eating her fruit. In the story the tree began to die, and the animals had to adventure to the top of the sacred mountain to discover it’s name and bring her back to life. “Haraka haraka” (quickly quickly) the Cheetah called as it ran… for many of the children this quickly became a chorus of “haggis haggis” instead! I will never forget hiding from the rain with one P1 class and racing together into the downpour to discover the name of the tree before racing back to tell the next part of the story in the safety of shelter!

The older ones got a much darker tale… the ancient Greek myth of Erysichthon of Thessaly, whose greed leads him to cut down a sacred tree in the grove of Demeter, the goddess of natural abundance. She curses him, putting famine in his belly so that no matter how much he should eat he could never appease his hunger. Finally, in that twisted way that Greek myths often reach their conclusion, he is so hungry that he eats himself. Yum. They loved the gruesome ending!

They then worked in groups to retell the myth. I was impressed by the focus of many groups, who seemed to really enjoy recreating the story and performing their sections to the whole group… even in the pouring rain!

At the end of a number of workshops we returned to the Meadow of Reflection to think about what we enjoyed and new things we had learnt. I was met with such wonders as “I never knew how many sorts of trees there are”, “I had no idea that lots of medicine is made from trees” and even “now I know that birds have conversations when they sit in trees”. It’s amazing to see the small steps that can lead to quite exciting changes and developments. I’m excited to see how this exploration develops as the weeks go on…

Fingers crossed for more sunshine next week. As good as it may be for the soil there are only so many hours a week that it remains fun to be soaking wet!