Many stories have followed the first ones in the woods. There have been stories of danger, fear, bravery, and rescue; mysterious stories of night time, shadows, and the dark (Greg’s third story multiplied the possibilities brilliantly: “Once upon a time a boy – called Greg – went to the woods at night and he saw thirty-seven shadows…”); there have been stories of creatures and homes – mice, birds, snails, a pretend donkey, the Gruffalo; there have been stories with important endings, and a story which had very assertively “No, no end”, a story that wanted to carry on.
Here are some of them, mostly told in the woods, but gathered together by the teachers as part of an evening’s storytelling at the nursery, when the children came back to school in pyjamas to listen with their families:
“Once upon a time a mouse maybe went into a deep dark wood and maybe climbed up a tree….and then climbed down and walked all the way down the road and all the way down the path – he was going to the shops to get some bread…and a nut, some milk, and then go and pay.
He lives in a tree and he went home with the food in the bag. He lived happily ever after.”
Alice had been telling this story for a long time to Ben while writing in one of our notebooks, I only caught the end:
“Bimberley. He has strong legs. When I call Bimberley – I just have to remember which thing he did….
Ben: I like Bimberley
Alice: Bimberley was really nice and when I saw Bimberley he came with me. He’s a pretend donkey. When I call him he comes to me.”
The children’s stories have often been closely connected, and in a couple of instances children literally told stories together, animated by the exchange, and loving the surprise of each other’s words. Sammy usually comes to the woods in the morning, but is here this time with the story makers in the afternoon, and has been playing pirates with a group of adventuring boys including James. They have also noticed Serga’s shadow projected onto a garage wall at the edge of the woods and been speculating about what it is.
Sammy and James’ story
Sammy: “And I want to do a story. Once upon a time there was a boy and he saw a really big shadow, and it was all the way to the sky.”
James: “And he spat fire at Sammy”
Sammy: “And Sammy spat fire at the dragon – on his bottom”
James: “And then the dragon spat fire at Sammy”
Sammy: “And I did more fire. And then the dragon did fire on your nose (to me), and the dragon spat fire all over your tummy, and you spat fire at the dragon, and it was all dead.”
Emily had wanted to tell her story in the woods but we had run out of time. I asked if she could save it until tomorrow and in the classroom the next afternoon she began as if no time had passed in between, picking up almost mid-sentence:
“She saw a shadow and it was a dragon. And then when I went close to the dragon I spat fire at the dragon and the dragon spat fire at me. And then the dragon ran away.”
Re-visiting this story in her sketch book it changed again. The exchange of fire between Emily and the dragon is more like a greeting or invitation, and it transforms the ending: “Once upon a time there was a little girl called Emily and a dragon came and he breathed fire at me and I blew fire at him and then he became a kind dragon and we went to a lake.“
We wanted to give the children more time to tell and listen to their own stories. We wondered if the stories would grow longer if they were told back in the classroom, rather than being ‘caught’ in the middle of what was still very quick and physical play a lot of the time in the woods. We also wondered how we could offer the storytellers more chances to tell stories together, as Jamie and Sammy had done with such obvious enjoyment and humour.
Working in the classroom we used the overhead projector and some very simple transparencies of the woods, the sky, and the trees with their shadows. There were some natural materials from the woods and feathers from the classroom for telling stories using the projected photographs as backgrounds. Some of the children were really interested in bringing the photographic elements together, layering trees, ground, shadows and sky. Others used a single image and added sticks and feathers which they moved as characters whilst they told their stories.
Most stories remained quite short, with children also spending their time exploring the images and materials, but one grew longer:
“Once there was someone who walked on the sky. He went bang. A giant came from the sky. He fell down the clouds, then he said “Fee fi fo fum, I smell the blood on an Englishman. I will slice him into a slice of bread.
There was a birdy birdy in the sky trying to kill the giant. ‘You can’t catch me – I’m the king of the castle’ said the giant. Then the birdy went flying up in the sky (up here) and down on the ground (here). The birdy killed the giant with his gun.
Then there were three birdy birdies. Then a big birdy birdy came. The giant fell down onto the floor. The End.
That was a very big story.”
Alice was also inspired by the sky image, and brought her familiar story of Bimberley to the overhead projector. She used a stick for Bimberley: “This is the high sky, and Bimberley (my donkey) walked across the high sky and he came back to the woods, and he hided behind a tree. Bimberley came to me and I cuddled him. He likes running on this patch, and he likes climbing on trees.”
Some children had spent time at the beginning of their visits to the woods looking up to the tree tops, speculating about the monkeys and other creatures that might live there. The sky image seemed to extend this imaginative space further and allowed their stories to grow into a new dimension. It also picked up an interest that was noticeable in many of the stories from the woods in scale and size.
The dinosaurs, dragons, and giant are all huge and powerful. But many of the children’s stories are about someone small (often themselves) outwitting or defeating something much bigger. This is a classic dynamic in folk and fairy tales, including the modern popular tale of the mouse and the Gruffalo, which many children bring to the woods with them. But the children themselves aren’t always small; they know they are both small and big, and perhaps their stories are an important way for them to explore and inhabit this ambiguity. Coming to the woods is a provocative experience – perhaps the equivalent for a three year old of standing next to giant redwoods or the Grand Canyon for an adult. It makes you wonder about your size and significance…
The children’s ‘small’ nursery is directly opposite the much ‘bigger’ primary school, where many of their older brothers and sisters go; in the woods a number of children have occupied ‘small’ spaces and found ways that are too difficult for ‘big’ adults to get through – they have thoroughly enjoyed the ownership and separation their small size has given them. But they also think of themselves as ‘big’ – many of them have baby brothers and sisters – and they have ‘big’ strength to use to pull logs around, ‘big’ bravery to catch the fox in the hollow tree (“I am bigger”… “well I am three”) and ‘big’ fighting ability when pursuing monsters and dinosaurs through the spiky bushes.
These preoccupations with size and identity became beautifully clear again when Indefinite Articles brought their brilliant show/workshop “Claytime” to the nursery the following week, and the two classes who had been in the woods worked together to create the story of The Giant Snail and the Exploding Crocodile – a tale of big and small, pursuit and escape, eating and being eaten, of conflict and friendship. (see next blog)