Storytelling is an important part of children’s play in nature. It is at the core of how they come to understand their outdoor experiences. Listening closely to the stories can reveal much about the child’s awareness, understanding and connection to nature.
My favorite picturebook depiction of the child in nature is the classic Wild, Wild Sunflower Child Anna (1987) by Nancy White Carlstrom. Carlstrom’s joyous, lively free verse paired with Jerry Pinkney’s lush, evocative illustrations captures a child’s sense of wonder at the world of nature. Anna makes a meadow her special place. She digs in the garden of meadow flowers, sifting the soil through her fingers and “whispering to seeds.” She gathers berries then splashes across a creek calling to the frogs with “great green frog words.” Adventurously, she climbs a hill then keeps on climbing into a tree, pretending to be a brave ship’s captain. Back in the meadow she makes daisy chains and stoops to watch the passing ants, rushing beetles and spiders “spinning silent webs.”
Carlstrom’s work may seem a bit romanticized; but, in fact, Wild Anna illustrates several recognized “play motifs” common to all children who have safe, free time in nature. Education author, David Sobel, M.Ed., identifies seven play motifs in his book, Children and Nature: Design Principles for Educators. In a variety of settings around the world, and regardless of economic status or ethnicity, he discovered that children in nature commonly:
• Make forts and special places
• Play hunting and gathering games
• Shape small worlds
• Develop friendships with animals
• Construct adventures
• Create fantasies
• Follow paths and figure out shortcuts
. . . and, as children play in these ways, THEY TELL STORIES. As children discover nature through their senses, the stories they tell themselves and others help to filter and sort a mountain of sensory information. Their stories include characters (people, plants, animals, rocks, land and water forms). Those characters work through conflicts and problems as they take a journey or make a discovery (plot). Allowing children plenty of time for unstructured free play in nature helps them to feel part of the natural story that is unfolding around them. They get to know the characters, see themselves as a character, understand the plot and, just like Anna, feel connected to their special place.
Prompting Storytelling – some adult DO’s and DON’TS
DO listen and observe – Remember that children can tell stories without you. Let the child maintain control of his story while you listen and observe closely to discover his growing edge of understanding.
DO model storytelling. Share what you notice and wonder (”I notice . . .” “I wonder . . .”).
DO tell stories to and with children that will connect them to a specific place. Use natural stories of the land; i.e, the history of the landscape; how “characters” (plants, animals) are connected. Give children stories they can add to their play.
DO help children to interpret natural evidence as stories (e.g., scratch marks on trees, smooth stones, tracks in snow and mud, holes in trees, chewed leaves).
DO select read alouds that supplement place-based education; for example, On Meadowview Street by Henry Cole is a suburban backyard story; The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats is a little boy’s wintertime urban adventure.
DON’T interrupt stories (yours or the child’s) with lecture or lessons to correct misconceptions. The story is key. Make notes and save lessons for another time and setting.
Nature storytelling is fun and natural for children. Prompt to inspire ideas – then step back and enjoy the story!
Reference: The Importance and Forms of Storytelling in Nature Education – workshop given at the Greater Baltimore Children and Nature Conference, 2011; held at the Baltimore Montessori Public Charter School.