Week 3: The Magical World Under our Feet

Only three weeks in on the Out To Play journey, but looking back across the landscape of the time so far I’m amazed by the distance we have already travelled. It’s been a deeply rewarding experience to get to know the individual children, teachers and land of the schools more and more, and to get a greater sense of where each class wants to go with this opportunity we have to share this adventure.  It’s always so hard to distill the essence of 11 very different sessions each week. We could have spent 14 weeks just looking at this subject… but here goes.

“The tree you can see is only half the story… because there is a whole magical world to explore underground!

The theme of this week was soil, the underworld and the seasons.

“So what is soil made from?” I asked.

“Dirt!”

“And what is dirt made from?”

‘Mud!”

“What’s mud made from?”

“Soil!”

Clearly some bridges needed building for most of the children to understand the amazing story of our soils. With one class I explained this by revealing the antlered skull of a deer which was met with shrieks of fear and excitement. It is a beautiful, strange, fascinating object. “So where has the rest of the deers head gone? What has it become?” It was amazing seeing the look on their faces when I explained how everything that was once alive becomes soil… all the muscles, skin and organs of the deer, all the leaves of trees, poo… even us. And if plants need soil to live and all life needs plants, then without soil, without death and decay, there could be no life at all.

The drama journey this week was all about teamwork. Root systems, mycelium networks, and of course many of the creatures that dwell in subterranean worlds. They all work together to make our soils. One species stands out above the rest when it comes to underground teamwork though: the humble ant. We explored the ways ants work together passing food sources across the playground, spreading information with a silly action theatre exercise, and walking in a long line exploring the playground.

The Ant Life Game

This game formed itself on the train on Monday morning. I decided to write it down here because I think it’s a great energetic teamwork exercise for P4-7 (Year 3-6), whilst teaching lots about the ways that ant colonies have been one of the worlds most extraordinary success stories. It’s also loads of fun, and it’s amazing how the facts really stayed with them when taught through action. Makes me want to create a game for learning everything!

You Will Need: at least 20 small balls/gym objects; sport bibs in 4 different colours (3,6,6,12); 6 hula hoops; a large outdoor space, preferably with places to hide objects.

In this game there are three groups. Each group is a colony of ants and they have their nest (plastic hula hoop) somewhere in the area. Start by asking the children to hide the balls throughout your outdoor space in places where you don’t have to move things to find them. The aim of the game is to gather as much of these balls, or ‘food’, for their colony as possible.

Use different coloured gym bibs to split the colonies into roles. In each team you will need:

1 queen ant: [The only female in the colony who never sees daylight and lays all the eggs to keep the colony alive.] The queen stands inside a hoop in the center of the colony and guards the food. In this game it is only the queen who can be inside the nest, and they are the only ant in the colony who can speak. Whilst she gives commands and shouts warnings, all the other ants must remain silent.

2 drones: [Male guards of the queen who take care of her and sustain the colony]. They protect the queen and stop their food from being stolen by staying beside the nest and tagging attacking fighters when they come too close. No pushing!

1 or 2 worker ants: [They sustain the colony by gathering food, creating the nest, tending the mycelium networks and all the other odd jobs… without them the colony could not survive!]. The role of the worker is to search for food (kind of like the seeker in Quidditch!). Each ball is 10 times their weight so they can only gather one piece at a time. Once they find the ball they bring it back to the nest sneakily or quickly without the fighters catching them and taking their food. Workers can’t defend themselves like fighters.

2+ fighter ants: [Fighters protect the colony and attack other colonies.] Their role in this game is to try to steal food from other colonies by sneaking up to them and taking one ball at a time without the drones tagging them. If they get tagged by a drone they have to go back to their nest. Fighters also take food from workers if they catch them. They can also steal back from other fighters if they catch them by having a rock paper scissors battle.

Each colony can decide on a team name and have a few minutes to discuss tactics before starting. It might be a good idea to have 3 hoops as an anteaters nest in the centre and call the teachers anteaters. This is where children that push or talk or break the rules have to stand until you say they can leave and carry on playing.

At the end of the game have a feedback circle asking the following questions:

How are you feeling about how that went? (temperature check: high hands = great, low hands = bad)

What did your team do really well?

What makes a good team?

What would you as an individual do differently next time?

How does it feel to be an ant?

What difference did it make where your nest was and what can that teach us about different habitats and environments?

At the end it’s a good idea to do a quick exercise to unify the group again.

I ended some of this weeks sessions with the story of the seasons and the sowing of seeds to welcome the spring. This week is the Spring Equinox, the time when day and night meet as equals and Spring begins. When we see leaves falling from trees in the Autumn we know that Persephone is making her descent to the underworld where she will reign as queen beside Hades, and the flowers that we now see bursting into bloom are preparing to welcome her home again.

Sowing has an alchemical quality to it, especially with children. Expectant open tiny hands await seeds no larger than this full stop. A moment of silence, a wish, a gentle descent, then the waiting. “Mine’s growing already!”

One school had apple trees they needed planting, so they got to actually see the soil below the school as we made our wishes, sang a song and sprinkled earth onto the roots. At the bottom of one of the holes was a big brick. We discovered it must have been from the old school that was knocked down to build their new one, and one of the children told me their dad went to that school. The bricks his dad would have walked past every day have ended up deep underground, waiting for us to discover them all these years later. There is a world of stories for us to discover in the world under our feet.

I’m learning more and more each day how connecting with nature is about so much more than trees and animals. It’s about the way we relate to story, to cycles, to magic, and to the place of humanity on our beautiful fragile planet.

Next week is water… how better to continue this exploration of cycles and journeys. I can’t wait to get started.