Storytelling and Nature Education

Storytelling is an important part of children’s play in nature because stories help children understand their outdoor experiences. Adults can learn from children’s stories and can encourage their storytelling by helping them observe closely, and by telling stories to and with them.

What is a story? And why do we tell them?

First of all—stories include characters. As those characters work through conflicts and problems, as they take a journey or make a discovery, the story unfolds in a plot. Stories are organized by time: first this happened, then that happened, and so on. Finally, a story takes place in a certain time and place—the setting.

We tell stories before, during, and after our experiences because stories help us make sense of the world. E.O. Wilson, biologist and writer, argues that “the stories we tell ourselves and others are our survival manuals” because they help us filter and sort the sensory information that could otherwise overwhelm our senses and brain. Wilson notes that “science consists of millions of stories,” “tested and woven into cause-and-effect explanations,” and that those stories are our evolutionary legacy. “We all live by narrative, every day and every minute of our lives.” According to Wilson, only cognitive processes underlying stories and music come naturally to humans, so it’s no surprise that children tell stories, and that they use stories to shape their play.

When children are outside, the characters of these stories are the plants, animals, rocks, and landforms around them. Usually the children themselves become characters in a story, too. The life histories and natural processes of those characters become the plot, and the setting of the story is the place where they are playing.

Children discover the world through their senses. Wonder and curiosity guide their outdoor exploration. Author David Sobel observed children playing outdoors in a variety of settings around the world. In his book, Children and Nature: Design Principles for Educators, he identifies seven ‘play motifs,’ common to all children regardless of economic status, ethnicity, and ecosystem when they have safe free time in nature.  Here he discovered that children:

  • Make forts and special places
  • Play hunting and gathering games
  • Shape small worlds
  • Develop friendships with animals
  • Construct adventures
  • Create fantasies
  • Follow paths and figure out shortcuts

And no surprise: as children do these activities, they tell stories.

What do stories tell us about children’s understanding of nature? Listen to children’s stories outside: they express children’s awareness, their understanding, and their connection to nature. We can discover a child’s growing edge of understanding by listening closely to her story. And a child’s story can reveal confusions and misconceptions—keys to scientific learning and teaching.

Adults as Story Mentors

Adults tend to offer premature abstraction and lectures when they’re outside with children. Rather than build on children’s natural tendency to tell stories, we often spout exposition, which, unlike plot-driven stories, is organized by logic (i.e., big ideas supported by details; topic and supporting sentences). As the adults in children’s lives, how can we encourage and strengthen their storytelling outdoors? Here are some tips:

  • Allow children the time to play outside; let it be unstructured free play.
  • Recognize, listen to, encourage, and join in children’s play and stories. (You need not join in. Remember: children can tell stories without you.) Listen for the ‘growing edge’ in children’s outdoor stories.
  • When you do become part of narrative play, take assignments: be a character, not the narrator of the story.  Let the children do the narration and maintain control of the story.
  • Tell stories to and with children outdoors (vs. lecture)
    • -Tell children the stories of the land so they add these stories to their play.
    • -Encourage children to help you tell those stories.
    • -Landscape history stories (What happened in this place before we got here? What will happen after we leave?)
    • -Ecological process stories (What’s happening between these ‘characters’? How do you think __ and ___ are connected?)
    • -Life history stories (How is ____(a plant/animal/rock/landform-character) changing?)
    • -Culture-land interface stories (How did/are humans change/ing this place?)
    • -Tell stories of your own experiences outside. Invite children to do the same.
    • -Tell hero stories (local, mythical) of the place. Imagination is enhanced by myth.
    • -Tell stories within the context of Sobel’s seven play motifs.
    • -Incorporate facts into a story. Be judicious; the story is the key.
  • With children, search for natural stories outdoors
    • Model how to interpret the story of the landscape. (Look at/smell/touch/listen to this. What could it mean?)
    • Help children interpret natural ‘evidence’ as stories (e.g., scratch marks on trees, smooth stones, tracks in snow and mud, holes in trees, chewed leaves). Specifically:
      • Carefully observe and share aloud what you notice and wonder. (Model: “I notice…” “I wonder…”)
      • Ask about previous experiences the children have had with that kind of the evidence. (Have you ever seen/smelled/heard ___ before?)
      • Figure out/make up/tell a story based on the evidence. (What do you think happened/is happening?) Tell a group story about the evidence. Invite individual children to add a piece of the plot.
      • Encourage children to use ‘evidence’ from the landscape. Don’t short circuit the story by disputing facts; instead bring attention back to the evidence. (Why do you think that? What makes you think so?)
      • Ask: who, where, how, what, when, why to spur on the story. (Where do you think it was going? When do you think that happened? What happened after that?) This approach is great when the evidence is animal tracks or signs.
      • Help children feel part of the natural story that’s unfolding around them: Encourage them to get to know the ‘characters’; see themselves as a character; understand the plot; and feel connected to the place.

Since all stories take place in a certain time and place—a setting–stories can connect us to a specific place. As children tell the stories of a place, they will grow to understand its characters and its unfolding plots. From that understanding will grow familiarity and love, and from that love, the desire to care for that place.

Note: This essay is an abridged version of a workshop, The Importance and Forms of Storytelling in Nature Education, given by the author at the Greater Baltimore Children and Nature Conference—2011. It is reprinted by Kamana with the permission of the author.

When she’s not tutoring children and adults with learning differences, Linda Davis likes to explore outdoors and volunteer as a nature educator for the Natural History Society of Maryland (www.meetup.com/marylandnature).  She and her husband facilitate a monthly Moss Study Group in Baltimore, MD.