Storytelling and its importance for outdoor learning and Forest School.

I believe in the power of stories. They help us connect, feel, learn and remember. Storytelling is a key element of our Outdoor Learning and Forest School programmes but the approach differs. Therefore, this blog explores these differences.

Storytelling in Outdoor Learning

Outdoor Learning is focused on teaching the curriculum outdoors. I use storytelling to do this in two distinct ways.

  • to convey information about key topics.
  • to teach English Language and Literacy.

Conveying information

Stories have shared important information for millennia. We find it easier to remember information told in a story than in a list of facts.

For instance, I recall the name of the fungi, King Alfred’s Cakes, because I enjoyed the legend of him burning the cakes black. This fungi can transport embers from one fire site to another. The story, of his escape through the swamps after the Danes had attacked his castle, reminds me of this. This tale demonstrates how we can teach everything from natural history to ancient history using stories.

Stories and recall

Alongside the anecdotal evidence, there is scientific research that stories help us remember. For example, Stanford professors, Gordon Bower and Michal Clark, tested the memorability of words embedded in stories versus a random list of words. Students that constructed stories were able to remember six to seven times as many words as those asked to just randomly learn them. This study demonstrates how stories improve our recall ability.

Creating pictures with words

Teaching outside means your unlikely to be using an interactive whiteboard, but your words create the pictures to captivate your students. Our emotional response to stories helps us remember information within them. This is because it causes more neurons to fire creating stronger neural pathways in our brains than data alone.

Teaching English Outdoors

An early years teacher explained that many children come to school having never been told a story by a parent or carer. This means they aren’t used to been asked to think about stories. By telling stories we expose children to a wide range of language and literary devices. By asking simple questions like “how do you think they are feeling” we help them practice their inference skills.

Creative writing

How does making up stories outside help children write better stories? Paul J. Zack (2013) claims, “there are two key aspects to an effective story. First, it must capture and hold our attention. The second thing an effective story does is ‘transport’ us into the characters’ world.”Outside, we are aware of our senses; the wind on our face, birds tweeting, the smell of leaf mulch. This makes it easy for children to use describing words to set the scene and transport us into their characters world.

The BBC’s 500 words competition is a wonderful way to inspire children to create stories. However, many children are discouraged at the thought of writing 500 words. Storytelling outside reminds children that words aren’t only written. The spoken word is just as powerful. Children can learn to construct a story and tell it using props from nature without getting frustrated by their inability to put it on paper. In this case, the writing can come later.

Storytelling resources

Georgina Keable’s book the Natural Story Teller is full of captivating stories. It also has fabulous story boards and story skeletons that children can use to record their story. These can be used to help them write out their story in full, if appropriate. Trisha Lee’s book Princesses, Dragons and Helicopter Stories is brilliant at giving suggestions on how to help children act out their stories.

Stories bring us together

At Forest School storytelling is part of the shared experience. Uri Hasson of Princeton University monitored people’s brain activity whilst they were told a story together. Before the story began, their brains show different activity— once the story begins, their brain activity becomes aligned.’ (Ha, 2016). Stories are a wonderful way of bringing the group together.

Telling tales at Forest School

At Forest School, I tell a stories connected with something that happens in the session. A feather a child has found or a mine they have dug. We also offer storytelling role play activities. Chris Hollands brilliant storytelling course, inspired me to use nature to help tell stories. In “I love my world” Chris suggests getting children to invent a journey for a character they’ve made out of mud. This slight framework gives children the impetus to let their imaginations run wild.

At Forest School Leader training storytelling is one of the areas we have most fun. It’s an invitation to be dramatic. Thespians among us love the ‘Forest Stage’. More reticent actors experience both the apprehension and the elation children feel. If they are encouraged to join an activity that’s out of their comfort zone.