Thursday, 14 January 2010

Bonding with the Big Outdoors



OK, I know Creative Partners doesn’t pay the going Society of Authors’ rate for author visits but I’ve just accepted a job with them. Will you all forgive me? I’m not proud. Times is hard and the work will be fun and you will know by how that I simply can’t resist the temptation to do everything that has to do with writing that isn’t actually writing. (I did write three chapters in the last two days, honest!) Anyway, I thought you might be interested in the ‘enquiry question’ set by the school. A storyteller, a visual artist and I will be helping years 1 and 2 and their teachers to explore the question:
‘How can we use the outdoors to enable children (and adults they learn with) to better express and communicate ideas, thoughts and feelings and make connections?’
My first thoughts are about exploring what they mean by that question – especially ‘make connections’ – but come on, folks – what do you all think? How do you use the outdoors to better express etc etc? Do you? Don’t you? Are they barking up the wrong tree? (Ho, ho, ho!) Personally, I find a brisk walk of a morning an essential part of a writing day – it’s great mulling time. I don’t mean I thrash out ideas that way, though I have a friend who does, but it just allows my mind to go into freefall, wandering all over the place in a relaxed sort of way and I think that’s very helpful and fruitful. It’s also moderately helpful in the battle against writer’s bum! But how useful a brisk walk would be in a big group, I don’t know – and almost inevitably, we’ll be doing group activities. Of course, I’m already thinking along more structured lines – building willow story-sharing arbours, thinking outdoor theatre, planning story trails (there’s a lovely one all laminated and ready to use if you go to Hackfall Landscape Gardens up near Ripon – see my photos) – but how do we as writers use the outdoors? I’ll be fascinated to hear. For me, places are often the inspiration for a story or creep in there somewhere. A long time ago I visited Chastleton House in the Cotswolds and was inspired to write ‘The Ghost in the Gallery’, partly because of the astonishing interior but also because of the spooky, neglected topiary garden. Stockport’s amazing air-raid shelters tunnelled into the sandstone banks of the Mersey sneaked into ‘Piper’, Thurlestone Bay in Devon provided the beach in ‘Fur’ – but this isn’t really about helping me to better express and communicate – it’s more about ‘where do you get your ideas from?’
I am intrigued. Perhaps they have a gut feeling that these small children, living on a fairly grim estate, are creatures of the TV and the play station and need to be outdoors. I would agree – but whether to help their expression and communication, I don’t know. I am excited and challenged and eager to find out. I will be on a journey of discovery and I hope to let you know what I learn. Certainly Forest Schools of which there are now quite a few in the English state system, find that the amount of time and activity spent outdoors has hugely beneficial effects on children’s learning and well-being. I find it fascinating. The stereotypical view of the writer is of one beavering away in his or her study – an indoor person. But here we’re going to be exploring writerly stuff with the focus on the outdoors – which suits me perfectly in moderation. I just want to know what the rest of you are up to! Passionately embracing the snow and the ice as your lifeblood just now – or rejoicing in the cosiness of a job that can keep you in all day? And how would you answer that enquiry question?

www.megharper.co.uk

10 comments:

Rachel Ward said...

Ooh, interesting work. I would try and use it as a stimulus to the children's five senses (not sure about taste, actually: 'George, put that mushroom down.')

When I was at Uni studying Geography, a million years ago, one lecturer took us all on a gentle walk around Durham and asked us to write a description. Beforehand, he handed out bits of paper with a secret messages on them, a different one for each of us. Mine was 'Don't forget about sound.' He was trying to nudge us into using all our senses and to get a feeling for a 'sense of place.' Twenty-five years later, I haven't forgotten him, or that place, or the walk.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

I like the idea of your mind 'going into freefall' while you walk, Meg. Mine does too. Don't seem to solve the problems or get the plot moving but maybe in the freefall we're re-energising. Having said this, I'm here on a 6 mile beach in the Southern hemisphere and am truly free-falling right now! But have a blog to write tomorrow (I think!)

steeleweed said...

I have always found that being alone in the forest taught me about myself and I think that's true for most people. In a group, your focus is likely to be on other people or you are at least distracted from your observation of nature. I think children should be taught to understand what they see - in the woods or on city streets - to the point they feel at home anywhere. Then, by examining what they can/cannot do and how they and the environment interact, they discover themselves.
Any ideas or feelings they express without that fundamental sense of self are not of much significance.

Good luck - and enjoy!

Brian Keaney said...

I wrote/edited a couple of books in this area a few years ago. You might find them helpful. They're called Bright Ideas In The Outdoor Classroom (Scholastic) and English In The School Grounds (Southgate).

Helena Pielichaty said...

There's also a great clip on the BBC's website by David Hockney talking about looking, really looking at the things around you. Seeing a pavement not as grey but as many different shades of grey and so on.
It sounds like a great project Meg.

catdownunder said...

Lucky students!
Want to try the 'leaf' exercise? Ask them to look for just one leaf they really like, consider its origins, describe it, make up a story about it and compare it with the leaves other people have found.

Rebecca said...

How about a silent walk to give the children 'space' within the group and in their heads.

Leslie Wilson said...

Making them be quiet and listen is a great idea. And I do, with adults, the STONE exercise, See,Touch,Oral(taste)Nose,Ear, focussing one by one on all the senses. Actually, I've done it with kids on school visits, and they usually respond to it best. I do think giving them a chance to experience aloneness, if you can, is good, but otherwise putting them in small, safe, groups often encourages kids to take risks, I've found...

Katherine Langrish said...

As a harassed young mother in France, I once did a forest meditation with friends. We were all together for part of it, but at the very end we went off one by one at intervals, following a trail of tufts of wool the leader had tied to branches, and for about five minutes each of us was on our own, and it was wonderful, following the trail which began by going through a huge split rock (symbolic, eh?) and ended at a pond with dragonflies. Being France, it was all very philosophical and poetic, and the rock was called 'La Porte de Solitude'...
Never forgotten it!

Meg Harper said...

Really sorry not to respond on the day, folks - I was straight into my new term with my youth theatre and chaos reigned - just coming up for air. Thank you so much for all those lovely, inspiring ideas - Brian, I used to love those Bright Ideas books when I was home-educating my own kids!Kath, I'm getting all excited about the woolly forest trail thingie! It sounds like the sort of thing I could use when leading a quiet day too! I'm going to print off all this and take it along to our initial planning day on Wed. Thank you so much for your generosity!