Christmas 2019 and New Year 2020 will forever be remembered in Australia for the impact wild bushfire has had on EVERY Australian’s lives. We want to share with you a simple but effective story we use as a base for storytelling to help children find some healing and understanding in this situation. We’ve used it a few times over the last 6 months. Here on the Gold Coast, our 2019 winter experience with bushfires saw the hills of the hinterland in flame with fires spotting all over the place throughout south-east queensland and smoke filling our sky. We shared how we supported our children during this time in our post “Storytelling and Trauma: supporting children in times of stress“. Our Gold Coast fires are under control now but others have swirled into a hungry beast that is currently stretched along the east coast of Australia, and in every other state. Now our Qld Rural Fire Brigades are supporting other states. As a nation, we are burning and hurting and it is all we can talk about.
Children will need to talk about the bushfire too. They will need to explore this topic in every playful way in order to make sense of the experience and their emotions attached to it. At Birdwings we use oral storytelling, drama and art to help children process the experience. Storytelling easily crosses over and carries on through play, and formal storytelling can also provide children with a stage to share their understandings. First, we model stories about fire by telling stories with simple props that children have access to in their place space: art materials, scarves and water. This way, the stories can easily be played out by the children together, and we can observe and echo their play themes by reflecting them back with more storytelling. In this way we create new stories together, and also affirm our understanding of the experience and of each other.
The poem included in this post is a guide and a base from which our storytelling about fire begins. It is a simplistic retelling of a common bushfire experience and definitely does not reflect the devastation some children have witnessed. It does not need to. Use it as is, or us as a base for storytelling. We don’t retell it exactly but we tell and retell the story with props, with children acting, with art materials. We tell this story in a way that children are actively powerful in putting the fire out. They are masters of the fire.
We tell it with little props in a small landscape on a story table. We act it out. We use big shiny cloths of red and orange and gold to swirl around as flames, plenty of water in spray bottles to spray over everyone to make the flames go away, green cloths, flowers and branches with green leaves for the forest to re-grow. We retell it with art materials, and let the story wander and change as we hand it over to the children – for the therapeutic benefits come from providing children with the opportunity to explore the theme in their own way. Provide open access to art materials and model how art can be used to express feelings and stories. Tell your own and then leave the children to engage if they wish.
Tell the story in your own way, take it and change it to retell what happened in your locality, making children the central characters, who observe what happens and take some decisive action. Set the scene: how did the children in the story know there was a fire coming? Did the animals flee? Did the children help care for animals? Put some animals in your story. Was it windy? Put some wind in your story. Did you pack the car and prepare the house? Make the children in the story do that too. At this point you can ask your children what happens next, and let them explore it. Or you can guide them to safety and continue the story from the point of view of those who came to help.
When it is safe to do so, being playful with fire may be powerful here too. We use fire in our program, so the children we work with know about fire and how to be safe with it. In this situation though, it may be best to start small with tiny fires only. Light candles and have children blow or snuff them out. Light bits of paper in a tin and drown it with water. When it is appropriate, try a kelly kettle, or a small fire in a colander or a fire bowl outside. Boil some water and make tea to re-establish a sense of purpose and joy in fire. Roast apple slices and marshmallows.
It will take much more than this to heal our nation, however young children need to play it out and make sense with it. We recommend any children severely affected by fires be able to access some professional therapeutic support, but in the meantime simple play is the greatest therapy. From Birdwings Forest School, we hope you are all safe and well and wish you the very best with your healing and recovery at this difficult time
SUMMER BUSHFIRES, Written by Jennifer McCormack, 2004 The wind whips and roars, rushing by The grasses and bushes are brown and dry The trees wave crisp leaves at the sky Bring us rain! A spark of heat from rubbish on the ground Is blown into life from the wind all around Consumes all it finds with crackling sound Bring us rain! Quick as a flash the fire has grown Animals flee from their burning homes Fire fighters arrive with the water and foam Bring us rain! The fire fighters work hard, and do us proud But now in the sky are big dark clouds A thunder storm arrives, heavy and loud Here’s the rain! New little green shoots are given birth Life starts again in the damp black earth The fire was bad, but it could have been worse Thanks to the rain!