In The Beginning: Reflections on Storytelling in Outdoor Education

by Abi Shapiro     ©2016

Once, a long time ago, father sun came too close to the earth and got caught in the branches of a tall tree. The more he struggled, the more he became stuck and so the dawn did not come. At first when the animals awoke to the darkness, they thought they had made a mistake and went back to sleep, but after some time passed they realized the sun was not rising. This was fine for animals like owl and fisher cat, who hunted under the cover of darkness, but the animals and birds who slept at night were very distressed.

They began to look for the sun, in caves, under rocks, in the rivers that flowed through the land. Finally, little squirrel had an idea. “Let’s look in the trees!” he declared. And so it was that little grey squirrel found sun quite caught up on the branches of a tree, far off in the east of the land. “Brother!” he called, “how can I help you?” The sun looked weakly down on little squirrel and said “Please brother… cut me loose.” So little squirrel climbed up into the branches and began to chew them away, but the closer he got the hotter he got. “I must stop, my fur is burning!” he declared. “Don’t stop now, you are so close,” said the sun. So he continued to climb and chew, and the sun got brighter with each branch he cut. Soon all of the fur had been singed from his tail. “I must stop!” he cried. “Please brother, don’t stop now.” Said the sun. Now the sun was so bright that little squirrel began to go blind, but he kept right on chewing and chewing until with a sudden whoosh the sun was released and returned to the sky, shedding light once more on all the land.

  All of the animals rejoiced, as did the sun, now returned to his proper place. But as he gazed down he saw poor little squirrel, completely singed of fun and blind, and he realized the sacrifice that had been made. He called down sorrowfully “little brother, you have suffered much to help me and for that I’m grateful. Because you came so close to me I cannot return your eyesight but is there anything else I can do for you?” Squirrel thought for a moment and then said, “I have always wanted to fly!” So Sun gave little squirrel wings. He also gave him the ability to see and hear everything around him during the night. “From now on the darkness will be your light, you will see, hear and fly swifter than any animal or bird while I slumber! So now, fly!” Sun called out. And so it was that little squirrel, now bat, dropped from the branch, spread his wings and took flight for the first time. And this is how bat came to be.[1]

This is a story I tell my students while sitting around the campfire eating lunch, after an exhilarating morning of playing games involving blindfolded walks, blindfolded tag (also affectionately dubbed “bat and moth”) and tree identification through touch. Perhaps we crawled through the forest trying not to make a sound, or sat in our sit spots using only our sense of hearing. This might also lead into a conversation about times they have acted courageously, or had the experience of someone helping them selflessly. The word “gratitude” comes up, gratitude for experiences we have had but also the great mystery of nature all around us. We also, simply, might be studying bats. This one story has the ability to inspire play, inquiry, self-examination, joyful research and exploration, social thoughtfulness and curiosity about the world we live in. This is the power of story in outdoor education.

I have a secret. I’m not a naturalist. Aside from the most rudimentary knowledge of nature identification (“hey, a rabbit! Look, a frog!”) I can confidently say I don’t know diddly squat about which leaf goes with which tree, or from which animal those tracks came. But I do have the power of story behind me and I know how to encourage my students (a term I actually shrink away from because they are more teacher than I) to ask the questions which will lead them to the stories (note, I didn’t say “answers.”). “What shape is this track? Is it large or small? How deep is it? Does it look fresh? Which direction is it pointing? What is the environment around it?” All of these questions lead to more questions which in turn begin to form a story, thus exercising their creative muscles and encouraging them to look beyond the obvious. Thus nature becomes the storyteller, teacher and muse.

Stories can be found everywhere in nature and in the way we interact with it. The softest breeze on our skin or the quick flutter of a pair of wings brushing past our foreheads. Nature based folktales, such as the one at the beginning of this blog, help keep us rooted in tradition as well as inspiring us to go out and find the stories nature wants to tell. Telling stories also inspires the children to tell themselves, and we often sit in circle at the end of the day and harvest some of the stories they picked up during their explorations. They always encourage us to look deeper into ourselves, into the world and into one another.

Outdoor education without storytelling is an impossibility. It would be like PB&J without the J, or an apple without its core. Nature IS story, billions of stories all being told at once, if we just silence ourselves enough to hear them. Not only does nature tell stories but it inspires stories, storytellers and of course, some of our most beloved folktales and characters (coyote, anyone?). So take your children outside and ask them about that caterpillar. Go for a walk and tell the tale of how Coyote was the moon. Let your children build their confidence by sharing their discoveries. Tell them, draw them, make them, make them up. Play, inquire, explore and most of all, get dirty and have fun!


Abi ShapiroAbigail is a vagabond, warrior-ess wielder of the spoken word. She currently resides in Amherst, MA where she’s exploring the correlations between body movement, myth and folktales, and personal archetypes.

This blog series is a part of the LANES Connections Project. This task seeks to celebrate connections to other organizations, professions, and milieus to which we are joined through story. If you are joined through story with another organization, profession, setting, style or milieu, we would love for you to share your experiences with us in a blog.

[1]    Native American Story- Anishinabe- Eastern Woodland

 


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