Story Outdoors

Stories in outdoor and experiential education (O.E.E.) are essential. In fact, if you dig a little bit, you will find that stories are essential to pretty much everything. Our attachment to stories based in the wild and in natural spaces are particularly deep. So much of story making in education is focused on the ‘how’ but this blog tempts us into taking the other path into the woods and following the ‘why’.

We all understand what it means to enter a story forest, we could all list characters that may be met, problems that might be encountered and what outcomes there could be. These ideas, themes and structures are recycled and encountered over and over in film, T.V. and advertising. The love of modern detective dramas is maybe due to their much older roots, often a re-telling of traditional tales where the wolf becomes the criminal and the woodcutter the detective. It’s not unusual for such ghastly contemporary crime narratives to still be played out in a Forest setting. Advertising is also a place where links with the wild and integrating the wild parts of ourselves, are frequently used. The use of the wild side of humans is a powerful persuasive narrative and image.

The integration of opposite parts of ourselves is a common theme that occurs in traditional tales. When a character enters the forest, we know if they manage to emerge at all, they will emerge changed. Many times, change itself is not only implicit but made explicit in fairy tales. Metamorphosing creatures, talking trees, kind characters gone bad like wolves and witches. Change is woven into the fabric of the fairy tale and this can be used to our advantage in OEE. It reminds us that all things can change for good or bad and that we can adapt and change in order to survive. I have even studied and researched the idea that the transformation expectation that we have from entering the forest, is so strong and embedded, that it is even a motivation for some who become outdoor and environmental leaders and educators. The strong pull of the idea of either becoming transformed ourselves by entering wild spaces, or by becoming endowed with the power to aid the transformation of others through the outdoors, is not that unusual when you look at some OEE research and methods of data collection. There exists an assumption that by virtue of being outdoors, change will occur. Maybe, this isn’t just about individual bias but more about the stories we are all fed with themes of transformation in wild places, from early childhood.

As a child I particularly enjoyed the part of fairy tales that told me that, even as a small girl, I could vanquish monsters. The forest and the wild is a place where monsters can hide, we only need be reminded of ancient maps that showed the places where monsters and beasts be. The forest and other wild places can represent to some ‘the place where monsters be’ but it can also come to represent the place where they were overcome. Our monsters are real and come in many forms, as children and even as adults. Understanding the necessity for the existence of monsters helps us to allow space for the vanquishing of them. For some children, [young people and often adults too] in the wild outdoor spaces they inhabit with us, vanquishing monsters can look like aggression. Rough play, shouting, hitting trees or rocks, sticks as weapons, battles, war and survival, these are all frequent behaviours witnessed in much OEE. This behaviour can seem at odds with how we as leaders/teachers imagine our practice, what our ethos is, what we want outcomes to be. The prevalence of the fairy story and of traditional tales, serves as a reminder that culturally, this behaviour in wild spaces is exactly what has been passed down. For generations we have been, killing monsters, emerging stronger and wiser, confronting our demons and surviving to live another day and have another adventure.

These are all powerful ideas and story can be used outdoors with surprising outcomes with students and participants. Story can be utilised in many ways depending on your angle or ethos. There are many story theories to choose from; learning, therapeutic, psychological, information retrieval, life rehearsal etc. On this matter, I tend to go with John Yorke, Author of Into the Woods, and agree that a reason for telling stories, that includes all other suggestions of theory, is the need to make order. The use of story helps us to order what is otherwise chaotic. This is as crucial a tool today as it ever was.

Whether the chaos we are ordering is, internal, external or both, the use of story outdoors is a powerful tool for learning about ourselves and the world that we live in. We can use and explore story in the classroom, and we can talk about structure, character and story mountains but taking your story making outdoors as close to nature as you can get, will give everyone involved surprising and unexpected outcomes. So much of traditional tales that are told and re-told have become ‘memetic’, which means that these themes, settings, characters and narrative outcomes are part of a cultural evolution, passed on, almost as if part of our genetic make-up. By accessing outdoor spaces, we instantly plug into these story memes. What’s behind that tree? Did that bird talk to me? What’s over that hill? Is she a witch? Did I uncover a lucky charm? Is a storm brewing? If I eat this, what will happen? What was that sound? How should I escape? Can I think of a clever trick to play on this character? Is this spider really a spider? Can I make up a magic spell? Etc. etc.

The point I am making is that we can let the outdoors do all the work in story making. Even the most basic or grottiest of our wild spaces can offer enough nature to plug into, in order to get the ideas and imagination flowing. First hand, I have had experiences of children who don’t want to speak then outdoors suddenly telling stories about bees or making a magic spell for a witch from leaves and twigs. Those who have found it hard to engage and concentrate in the classroom have been able to fully perform a story of their own making, through big body expression outdoors, where they can use even a minimal natural space as the setting for great adventures. Children and young people who are neurodiverse can thrive and easily create story for themselves and others when they can directly plug into a natural outdoor space. Adults, allergic to performance of any kind have been able to find ways to create and tell stories by using what is easily available in outdoor settings. Just as in fairy tales, the most unlikely of students and participants can transform before your very eyes and heartily enact an amazing adventure or become the most real and believable of characters. Which leads to one of the most valuable reasons for building stories and that is because we get to re-write them. A story re-authored to give a different outcome and to change a personal or cultural narrative is very powerful.

I write this as I prepare for an Outdoor Conference where I am presenting a ‘story by stealth’ workshop, packed with lots of ideas, tools, games and ways to get even the most reluctant story tellers excited. As I write of course, I realise that the ‘stealth’ referred to in the workshop title is not in the clever tricks and tips but in the very act of taking the story outside.

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