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The Tree Grows Strong, A Story for Reconciliation.

At Birdwings Forest School we enjoy many types of storytelling, but mostly we use oral storytelling to share our knowledge and experiences. We tell stories of our own experience, Kombumerri and other Aboriginal dreaming stories, stories about seasonal learning and our own play. Sometimes we use props, sometimes we use actions, but for this kind of storytelling we don’t often use books. We sit together and call the story in with our story song and let the story come. 

It comes a little differently each time, so we like to tell our stories many times and to hear our stories from different storytellers of all ages in our group. This way we see how the story grows, and what new things we can learn from each other. At the moment we are using a special felted mat that we made to show children where they live on Kombumerri Country (Gold Coast). From the mountains, down the rivers, to the sea, we all live here together – and there are many stories to share about this land. 

Felted map of Kombumerri Country. Image by Birdwings Forest School.

The story we have been telling this week had called to us from a tree that we love to play in with our WildPlay Adventurers Playgroup. This is a HUGE fig tree!! We love to sit under it, to climb it and be cradled in its branches. We love to be brave and shimmy out as far as we can on the strong, thick limbs, and to throw ropes over those limbs to make swings. We look at it and wonder how old it is – surely it was here before there were houses and roads and parks and farms. Surely this old tree has seen a lot of life come and go over the years it has been standing there. Maybe it was a sapling when it was just the Kombumerri and Bullongin people coming past to meet and trade with each other on the Coomera River. This old tree has many stories to tell, and we listened and wondered while we played.

Connecting to Country with WIldPlay Adventurers Playgroups. Photo by Birdwings Forest School.

It’s National Reconciliation Week starting next Wednesday 27 May, and maybe you will like this story too, because Reconciliation Week is all about celebrating shared histories and having honest conversations with children and the community. We’ve had many thoughtful discussions with our Little Birdwings Forest Kindy friends about colonisation, and we’ve explored questions from the children such as: When the white people come, did they put the Aboriginal people on ships and send them away? What did Aboriginal people wear before white people brought clothes like ours? Why did some of the Aboriginal people go away when the white people came? Why did some die? Did white people die too? Who made the world before the Aboriginal people lived here? We’ve continued these conversions during our storytimes, while we walk in the bush, over our craft times, making some felt bag tags in the colours of the Aboriginal Flag. As we explored the significance of the flag colours, elements of the story came to mind for the children, and so we talked. 

Yarning about Country and Colonisation with our Little Birdwings. Photo by Birdwings Forest School

THE TREE GROWS STRONG

Written by Narell Neville and Jennifer McCormack, May 2019

Long long ago, a little seed floated down the Coomera River. It came from the rainforest and got wedged in the sand, the mud and the silt on a corner of the river. The little seed thought this was a good spot to stay, and so it grew. The wind and rain and sun made it grow, and grow strong. It grew so big that over time its branches stretched far along the river, up to sky and across the grass.

And the tree grew strong.

It saw many things, this tree. It saw the Kombumerri people go up and down the river: catching fish, eating, living, farming, playing. It saw the Kombumerri families meeting and trading with the Bullongin clan who lived north of the river. Together, they took care of the land. Children from both tribes played in the branches of this tree.

The tree watched and listened, and the tree grew strong.

One day the white people came. They walked differently on the land, and spoke a different language. They started to farm as well, but to do so, they cut down the trees to make pastures and fields. They brought some strange looking beasts called cattle and horses. The white people told the Kombumerri and the Bullogin people that they could not farm, or live, or pass through this area any more. This was confusing. What did they mean? The white people said they would live here now. There were some struggles between the Aboriginal people and the settlers. Some people died, some went away and some stayed. Now, only the children of the white people came to play in this tree.

The tree watched and listened, and the tree grew strong.

After the struggles there were no more Bullongin people, but many of the Kombumerri stayed. Kombumerri and other Aboriginal people began to live among the settlers, together. They did their best to keep their language and care for the land, but it was never the same again. The tree saw houses built upon the farmlands, and roads. New families came to live there. The land was still cared for, but differently now.

The tree watched and listened, and the tree grew strong.

Today, children from many different families and from many different places play in this tree together. And today, the tree is as big as you can see and always children will play here. They can hear the tree’s stories and the tree has told them how to look after the land carefully, as the Kombumerri people still do. The tree remembers everything that has happened since it was a tiny seed – and it shares its story with you. Do you hear it?

And the tree grows strong.

Under the big fig tree

You, and me

We are playing happily

Under the big fig tree

Birdwings Forest School offer training in Ecological Storytelling. We are very happy to come to your service and work with your educators, or you can come to us and learn on site at our Forest School. See our training page for details.

Photo by Birdwings Forest School
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A healing story for children in the fire crisis

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.

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Storytelling at Little Birdwings Forest Kindy

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.

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Storytelling at Little Birdwings Forest Kindy September 2019

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.

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A spontaneous collaborative drawing between children aged 2 – 4 years. It ended up being a story about a snake who needed to flee the bush because of a fire. It left the trees and went straight to the green grass and to safety. Echoes of our conversations with children about our fire plan at Little Birdwings Forest Kindy have come through here.

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.

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Birdwings Forest School 2019

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

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Photo credit Cameron Neville 2019
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!
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Photo credit Cameron Neville 2018

 

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Storytelling and Trauma: supporting children in times of stress

Written by Jennifer McCormack and Narell Neville, 2019.
Sometimes children are exposed to tragedies. Traumatic events such as natural disasters, illness and accidents won’t wait for children to be tucked away to protect them from worry. Children may be involved directly in traumatic events, or perhaps as onlookers observing the processes of others while emergency preparations occur, feeling the impressions of the fear and concern of the community, or surrounded by conversations about about the progress of events. All of these impressions can quickly become very overwhelming for children as they strive to organise their thoughts and feelings, and work out what it means to them.
Close to home, right now, the Scenic Rim, Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast and Northern NSW communities are currently amidst the tragedy of bushfire which is having devastating effects upon natural bushland, private properties and the loss of many structures. Locals have had to enact emergency plans to protect homes, livestock and evacuate their families. Other families have members from emergency services who are helping to support those in trouble. Children all over these areas have seen and breathed the smoke, dust and hot winds. They have heard the emergency vehicles and seen the water-carrying planes and helicopters that have been working around the clock to settle the fires. Children in rural areas may have a parent who is volunteering their time to help with the crisis, working long hours and coming home tired, dirty and smoky.

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Photo Credit, Cameron Neville, 2019

We have many families in our local Birdwings community within this area (who are all safe) but who have been on high alert in preparation for the possibility of wild bushfire changing their lives forever. This week, the children will be talking about the fires, they will be sharing experiences, discussing the things they know, and watching each other for shared emotional responses as they talk to understand what has happened in their world.
We plan to allow children the space to talk about it, and we will explore it creatively together if need be through our Ecological Storytelling approach. The sooner the better. We find storytelling the most successful way to help children understand big events in their lives. Storytelling allows children to listen and identify with the parts of the story that makes sense to them. Even the act of listening to a story about their experience is an empathic acknowledgement that this is a thing that happened and that the child was a part of it. Traumatic events presented in the form of a metaphor helps to separate the child from the direct experience but will still tap into the emotions and offer support in the form of courage or some ideas that children could try for themselves outside of the story to find resolution and understanding.

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Photo Credit, Narell Neville, 2018

Storytelling may be presented in various modalities and telling stories through many forms of creative art will offer a range of access points to children’s emotions and understanding. Painting, drawing, clay, dance, drama, even jokes, will help children to find their place and organise their thinking, recognise their emotions. Playing with the elements gives children an open-ended experience to explore their thoughts. In the case of fire, we are fortunate that our Birdwings children have had experience already with fire: they know how to light it, to tend it and keep themselves and the environment safe. They have made fires of their own and enjoyed the big bonfire at our Winter Festival. They know what to watch out for when a fire is lit, and how to care for it and the space around it so that it doesn’t go out of control. We are not going to explore fire again in our current situation, until the crisis is gone (and the fire ban is lifted!) but this background of knowledge can be easily explored in story to remind children they have some power in their experience.

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Photo Credit Jennifer McCormack, 2019

At Birdwings we have faith in children’s abilities to learn and process information. Children are very capable about communicating their knowledge and ideas, given the space, time and trust to do so. Children have so many ideas of their own about how to help in times of crisis, and storytelling may be one way to begin a conversation with children to hear their suggestions about what to do, how to avoid danger, how to create a plan to stay safe.
Through playful and gently therapeutic approaches we know children will take what they need from their experience. We have a story that we like to tell in high fire danger, however the whole experience will be guided by the children, with the children taking control of the situation. After we tell the story, we often invite the children to retell it to each other, and that’s when we hear so many great ideas, solutions and deep thinking about the situation.
We hope your families and homes are safe, and that you might consider asking your child to share their experience and knowledge with you. You may be surprised at the depth of wisdom they hold, and the relief that someone is there to listen. Here are some other useful resources to explore bushfires with children:

For more information about our storytelling approaches at Birdwings, we have upcoming training in Ecological Storytelling and Advanced Forest School Mentoring. For more information about our programs, please visit Forest School Programs

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Photo Credit, Cameron Neville, 2019
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The challenges of childhood are meant to be tricky.

Challenges mostly come to us in our lives when we are ready for them. As infants we learn to walk after we have grown strong core muscles from rolling around on the floor, sitting and crawling. We are ready to move so the challenge is embraced. We learn to talk after listening to conversation and sounds around us, watching people interact socially and practicing the sounds for ourselves. When we need to communicate we are ready to try. Such challenges come to us naturally when we are in a place of comfort and ready shift into a new period of growth.

Sometimes in our growth we deliberately seek a new experience and at other times, moving around outside of the zone of familiarity is awkward, uncomfortable and requires a new skill set. New skill sets require practice. Practice means we need to navigate that space between what we know and don’t know, over and over again. One foot in the comfort zone, and another out, until we are ready to step out all together into a new space of learning. It sure does help when we have people to watch and learn from: mentors to guide and encourage us and help us reflect on our learning.

Challenge is meant to be a bit tricky. Challenge stretches us and asks us to find our more about ourselves. Challenge encourages us to reflect on our capabilities, our effort and our motivation. It hones our vision and it uplifts us when we finally realise that now we can do it, when we couldn’t before. Remember when that was hard?

Sometimes challenges come to us before we are ready. They take us by surprise and ask us to grow too quickly and learn too many new things at once. We might have to learn new skills as we go, and without a guide. We have to navigate a new environment that feels hostile and unfamiliar. These challenges will come to us in our lives – without a doubt! Children might greet such challenges when they are starting a new school, moving house or experiencing a family trauma. It can feel overwhelming, maybe traumatic. It doesn’t get easier as we get older, the challenges keep coming: learning to drive, moving out of home, starting new jobs, travelling, managing finances, being a parent, coping with grief and loss.

When those big challenges come, who will cope better? The person who has learned to embrace difficulty or the person who has had few opportunities to practice stepping confidently forward in their own learning? The person who understands that hurt, disappointment and confusion is temporary, and can shape us and teach us new skills – or the person who has never had the opportunity to feel such pain and grow through it?

As we cannot predict when major challenges will enter our lives, let’s encourage children to embrace the day-to-day ones first. Ask them to be responsible for their belongings, to pack their own bags, carry their things, do their own shoes laces up. Involve children in food preparation, tidying up and garden jobs because they are capable of doing this from an early age. Such responsibilities help children practice life skills and learn to apply effort to do a job well.

Let children have time to play outdoors with friends and without adults around. They’ll be ok! Allow time for children to address their disagreements before stepping in. Remember that we learn our social skills by being social – and this means experiencing arguments and disappointments from friends from time to time. It’s sad and frustrating at times. We are not responsible for our children’s happiness – but we can teach skills to reflect on empathy, emotional well-being, self-management and problem solving.

Let children feel a little pain. Let scratches bleed a little and watch the blood before it is covered up with a bandaid. Blood helps us heal. The pain of a bruise and the discomfort of a bump is our body’s way of saying “I got this! I’m healing!It’s going to take a little time so be patient!”, and we learn more about our bodies so that we don’t feel that again.

Children who are not provided with opportunities to discover their capabilities might experience every new difficulty as a major one because ALL the big challenges will come before they are ready! We, as parents and educators can be the mentors for children by providing a supportive challenge environment, and gently stretching the zone of comfort for children to learn that tricky things are not insurmountable: “We know its tricky and we know you can do it”.

Birdwings Nature offers Little Birdwings Forest Kindy for children aged 18 months to 5 years and Birdwings Bush Club for children aged 5 – 10 years. Birdwings offers nature forest school mentor training for educators who wish to deepen their practice in outdoor learning, risky play and nature connection.

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Storytelling on the track: three ways to explore nature, culture and our relationships with both.

Oral storytelling is one of the foundations of children’s development of language and literacy. It’s also one of our foundation practices at Birdwings – plus everyone loves a story! Storytelling for us happens in so many different ways.

We share planned stories which often have props and scenery specially prepared. These stories we have written ourselves, or we retell from known stories and books that we love. They are chosen to celebrate seasonal change, to share cultural knowledge to acknowledge current interests of the children, explore relevant therapeutic themes or to purposefully share knowledge of local nature.

The children and Narell discovered prawns in the creek, so in this photo Narell is sharing the story of “Buding biba gawunga: Buding the deadly little prawn” by Sandra Delaney, a Quandamooka descendant. This story affirms and celebrates their discovery, adds new information about the behaviour and needs of freshwater prawns and shares their cultural signficance. The book is also written in Jandai language so we can have discussion about language too. Narell retold it with cloths for scenery and natural props for the characters. The children instantly began interacting with the props when the story was finished. Prop stories are a wonderful way to model the creative use of loose parts.

Jennifer often uses minimal props and just body gestures and facial expressions. This helps children develop listening skills, the ability to hold abstract pictures in their mind and to read body language. Here, Jennifer is sharing a Dreamtime story from northern NSW about the first fire. A scene set with fabric, and sticks were the only props. There were more cloths to represent flames, but these lay forgotten during the re-telling. As you can see from the engagement, this didn’t matter at all …

The stories come up again in conversations as we recall details in our daily work. Spontaneous storytelling frequently occurs along the track. These might be shared experiences told and retold while we walk, playful re-enactments when we stop to rest or eat. Very often, when we enter a familiar part of the track we will tell the story of what happened here last, or of what we saw, and then continue to share with each other what we learned, and what we’ve discovered since.

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And so stories become a part of our living relationships with each other and with our surroundings. This is the basis of Ecological Storytelling.

Birdwings offer training in Ecological Storytelling and nature mentoring. Check our schedule to see if there is training coming up or contact us to book a workshop for your centre or conference.

Ecological Storytelling Flyer - Birdwings