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Engaging children with nature through drama and storytelling

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Logo: EcoDrama

Founded in 2007, Eco Drama are passionate about making quality theatre and creative learning experiences for children and young people which nurture a sense of curiosity, wonder and care for our natural world and remind us we are part of an amazing living planet. Their work explores how the power of the arts can be used to inspire and support people of all ages to take positive, practical action for the environment.

Pupils participating in Out to Play running through willow with masks on (EcoDrama)
Pupils participating in Out to Play (EcoDrama)

Eco Drama’s innovative arts-based outdoor learning project ‘Out to Play’ was designed in 2015 to explore the unique role of drama and storytelling within outdoor learning. The company have now delivered 25 five week residencies in urban Glasgow primary schools and nurseries, each led by one of four Drama Artists. The project uses storytelling and imagination to turn everyday urban school playgrounds, often mostly concrete, into a place of adventure and discovery about the natural world, and has connected with over 4,000 pupils aged 3-12 years old and over 600 teachers, empowering them to continue this method in their future outdoor learning sessions after the residency is over.

Ben Mali Macfadyen, Drama Artist said: 
“I love exploring diverse mediums such as puppetry, storytelling, mime, treasure hunts, masks, forum theatre, ritual, physical theatre and music. This is an amazing opportunity and I can’t wait to have many wonderful playground adventures with the children involved whilst also developing qualities of wonder, creativity, physicality and knowledge about the natural world and our place in it.”

Come rain or shine, the ‘Out to Play’ pupils and class teachers ventured outdoors every week, celebrating the diversity and beauty of our living planet under the encouraging eye and guidance of the Drama Artist.

Pupils participating in Out to Play in a playground (EcoDrama)
Pupils participating in Out to Play (EcoDrama)

“Much of the journeying through mythical landscapes was about bringing natural places back to life using the imagination, one example being in ‘The Meadow of Memories’, where they gently took imaginary insects, worms and spiders from my pockets to a new home. I’m hoping that we will return to these environments in the coming weeks and see them continue to flourish.” (From Ben’s blog: To Neverland)

Their paths crossed water-worlds and treasure maps, story trees and animal tales, magic beans and living plants, mythical narrative and cherished songs. Fresh connections to the outdoors were grown and nurtured through imaginative play, drama and storytelling. Each week the Drama Artist would blog and re-tell their experiences, the games played and the stories told:

“I sat down the classes and read them the tale of ‘How the Camel Got its Hump’ from my great-grandfather’s 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… After this I asked them how they thought their own favourite animals came to be the way they are, and this led to the creation of amazing performances of stories such as ‘How the Wolf Got its Howl’, ‘How the Chicken Got its Wobbly Bit’, ‘How the Baboon Got its Red Bum’, and the genius suggestion: ‘How the Pug Got its Squashed Face’.” (From Ben’s blog: Becoming Animal)

Pupils participating in Out to Play with Drama Artist Sarah Rankin (Eoin Carey)
Pupils participating in Out to Play with Drama Artist Sarah Rankin (Eoin Carey)

By using creative play and adventurous learning, the children built upon emotional connections to nature that are subtle yet resilient, perhaps even primal. The simplicity of touching a tree, the act of “becoming animal”, of planting seeds and patting soil, imagining whale sounds, singing tribal songs, recounting tales of wilderness near and far; these experiences helped to instil in them an affinity with nature. They awakened a curiosity about the world they inhabit and enabled them to spot it more readily upon their own doorsteps. A pupil from Balornock Primary said:

“I loved it because nature is what is inside me. Thank you for everything. It has been a delight. Nature is important because we are nature. If we didn’t have nature we wouldn’t be able to live.”

The pupils’ obvious enjoyment of their sessions, their awakened sense of wonder and delight for the world they live in is celebrated in their feedback, as growing confidence allowed them to express their own individual relationship with the environment. Another, from St Vincent’s Primary, said: “It’s a fun positive way to explore nature and life. Thank you for teaching us. This program has made me aware of nature and more confident and happy.”

The ‘Out to Play’ residencies serve as an essential platform for teachers to experiment with and gain confidence in outdoor learning, whilst providing them with a holistic program of learning. This is achieved through collaboration, co-leading, post-residency CPD sessions and resource packs to be shared amongst fellow-teachers and local schools, leaving behind a creative learning legacy. a teacher at Aultmore Park Primary, said:

“Ben has inspired me with lots of activities and stories – he has planted a seed and I look forward to implementing projects next season… I have loved being a part of ‘Out to Play’ and the children have absolutely loved it also!”

Pupils participating in Out to Play - using fingers to make glasses (EcoDrama)
Pupils participating in Out to Play (EcoDrama)

And a teacher at Balornock Primary, said: “It made me realise that a lot of what I do inside I can take outside.”

It is Eco Drama’s confident hope that the impact of ‘Out to Play’ will echo in the minds of pupils and teachers for years to come; that it will even leave behind its own trail; a lifelong love for nature. Finally, here are a pupils’ wishes for nature:

“I wish nature will never end… I wish nature can have a good life… I wish people wouldn’t cut down trees and pollute rivers… I wish people could understand nature… I adore nature… I wish flowers could talk…”

For more information on ‘Out to Play’ and to access the blogs from all residencies from 2015 to 2020, click here.

Other Eco Drama productions and workshops

As well as ‘Out to Play’ residencies, Eco Drama deliver Continued Professional Development workshops to teachers and have written three resource packs as a result of the project, to enable educators to develop imaginative approaches to outdoor learning. The most recent pack is specifically aimed at early years, and there are two for primary age. You can read more about the packs here.

Eco Drama also tours theatrical productions and workshops to engage and inspire people of all ages to care for our amazing living planet. Their most recent show is ‘The Whirlybird, a funny, playful and moving piece of visual theatre for 3-7 year olds about learning to fly, encouraging one another and finding joy and inspiration in nature. Schools who book the show are given a Classroom Activity Pack, with lots of useful pre- and post-show activities. To get in touch with Eco Drama, please click here.

This article was first published in NAEE’s journal, Environmental Education (Vol. 110). To read more articles like this, you can join the Association and receive three journals a year.

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Posted On: 29/01/2021

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