Week 8 & 9: Becoming Animal

Find a place to be outside… your special corner of the world. A sit spot. Go there to listen, to watch, to be still. Sense the seasons. Know that you are an animal. See what nature is trying to tell you…


Many First Nations peoples of the Americas believe that when a child plays at being animals, the spirit of that creature is actually moving through them, controlling their movements and actions. It is in leaving childhood that they must choose which animal will be their guide through their adult lives, teaching them the ways of culture and nature. These last two weeks I have seen some extraordinary performances from children from the age of 4, enacting with amazing accuracy the movements, sounds and characters of a menagerie of animals.

How is this such an effortless task for children? If you asked a group of adults to do the same they would bumble about, self conscious and awkward. There were moments when I had to get them to tap their noses three times and spin around because they couldn’t change back in to humans! Such is the power of the imagination to create magic, learning and a deep sense of care and wonder for the natural world.

“This is how we transform into animals…” Echoing the metamorphoses of endless folk tales, we began by slowly contorting from human to mammalian, fish, reptilian form… moving as different animals and exploring their characteristics i.e. what is it like to fly like an eagle? What makes a mammal a mammal? How does an ant crawl? How do harlequin shrimps say hello? What form of animal is a human?!

After this I sat down the classes and read them the tale of ‘how the camel got it’s hump’ from my great grandfathers tattered copy of ‘Just So Stories’ by Rudyard Kipling. In it are a wonderful collection of tales that explain the origin of animals with moral tales of transformation. In the tale the camel was very lazy and only ever said “humph”. In order to get him to work, a Djinn gave him his very own ‘humph’ which meant he could work extra hard in the desert. He still hasn’t learnt how to behave though. It was wonderful to read a story from a book for a change. To sit with old words still so fresh and relevant in front of so many expectant faces.

After this I asked them how they thought their own favourite animals came to be the way they are, and this lead to the creation of amazing performances of stories such as ‘how the wolf got it’s howl’, ‘how the chicken got it’s wobbly bit’, ‘how the baboon got its red bum’, and the genius suggestion ‘how the pug got it’s squashed face’. During the last session I did this there was one group who told the the tale of ‘how the sheep got it’s wool’. In it, a horse felt sorry for the shivering sheep and helped it first find hay (but the sheep just ate it) and the farmers jumper (which was too small) before deciding to stick dandelion fluff all over it with glue. One amazing element of their piece was that the sheep and horse were so deeply in their roles that when the narrator said “so the poor cold sheep/friendly horse said”… all they could say in response was “baaaa” and “neighhhh”, and the narrator was left having to translate for them.

With the younger ones the storytelling lead to a session making creatures out of clay, using sticks, moss, flowers, stones and feathers to bring their creations to life. It was fascinating to see that the younger the children were, the freer they were with their creative processes.

There was much less ‘trying to get it right’ with the P1’s and 2’s. Two blobs stuck together with a stick could be the best lion ever. I then asked them to tell someone else the story of their creature, before taking it on an adventure and finding it a new home. Some of them were sad to leave them behind, but it feels important to practice letting go and allowing things to return to the wild.

We then explored animal languages and communication, from birdsong to echolocation. I taught them the 5 voices of birds through role play which was a lot of fun. With more time (and older children) you can transform these into skits with human characters, for example the juvenile begging of nestlings can be transformed into children stuck in a car begging for ice cream. Any process that highlights the connections between our own lives and the subject of study not only encourages learning but in the case of outdoor learning also deepens the sense of interconnectedness with the natural world. The third element, creativity, brings the mythic, the magic, the wonder into the process. This subject-creativity-experience triangle has been a core model I’ve tried to incorporate into the Out to Play sessions.

An ongoing dilemma I have with working with groups of children is the conflict between wanting to deliver an exciting programme of activities and just going with where they are at and what their needs are in the moment. The challenge lies in the fact that there are so many children that it would be impossible to follow each of their creative outdoor explorations all the time. There will always be some that are too cold or want to play with sticks or stay being a penguin when i’ve invited them to be pufferfish. Sometimes, however, I manage to find opportunities to create a space for individuals to follow their own creative journey.

One instance the other day was with an exercise where I was asking the group of P7s to find their sit spot and listen. I gave them paper and invited them to draw a map of their sonic surroundings, drawing shapes and patterns that represent sounds near and far – the builders drills, the birdsong, the footsteps of a dog walker, the ant crawling past. One boy in the group has spent weeks drawing patterns in the gravel, often disengaged with what we are doing as a group. Finally I had the opportunity to ask him if he would like to draw his sound map in the ground. He seemed surprised by the invitation after having asked him to stop his doodles to work in a dividing process with a group, but as soon as I turned my back I was delighted to see him intently focusing on the sounds around him as he scribed in the floor.

“It’s a masterpiece!” one girl exclaimed when I gathered the group around his creation at the end of the session, and he seemed so proud of his work that day. I guess I can never cater to the needs of all the children all the time but there are moments like this where I feel most enlivened by this work, and wonder if my legacy can live beyond the short few weeks that remain of this amazing creative journey.

1 thought on “Week 8 & 9: Becoming Animal”

  1. I’m interested in your workshops for teachers
    And children. Do you run these in South West
    Alison johnson

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