I miss waking at sunrise to make lunch, arranging secret treasures for them to find around the classroom, picking up rogue googly eyes. I miss in-person scavenger hunts, afternoons in the cottonwoods watching them invent games and teach one another circus tricks. I miss our circle time, processing dreams together, listening to them tangle with and resolve conflicts. I miss helping them stand on stilts for the first time and feeling with them the pride and confidence that comes with trying something new. As I long for the curriculum I thought I would be sharing this year, I haven’t had to let go of all the beautiful moments. In this new arena, working from home with children across the country, I have found even more hope in the power of stories.
At a time when education has been transformed and shifted to new media; teachers and students pushed into an unfamiliar landscape of learning, stories can help stretch our minds around these vast and sudden changes. Without the grounding force of in-person interaction, many concepts can be difficult to grasp. This is especially true as we navigate the big social shifts that are happening right now.
Stories give us the power to make sense - through fantasy, imagination and archetype - of a world experiencing upheaval. There is a reason why forces of nature have been personified throughout time, why parable has been used to illustrate moral principles, why fairy tales are often imbued with cultural messages about discipline. Even the most fantastical stories can offer a structure in which to represent global turbulence and explain complicated ideas.
This is especially important for children. A child’s brain has not yet fixed itself on reality. While stories are important for all ages, children need an engaging, relatable world in order to process information. As we grow, the awareness of our social environment expands as well. This process varies person-to-person, but for a while, our world extends about as far as we can perceive it with our bodies and interests. The irony (and opportunity) is that, while they may not grasp far-reaching concepts, children’s imaginations are boundless. They are open, open to the stories that can redefine and shape better systems and a more beautiful future. When we embrace a child’s perspective, we are made smarter simply by being in proximity to this cognitive openness, the kind of intellect that is not yet fact-based, but alive with learning how to learn.
Shifting a circus art and nature-based program to an online format has been difficult. We’re called Storycamp because my brother suggested it a decade ago when I was designing immersive storytelling performances for children. Recently, the name has carried into a new incarnation. We may not be together, exploring the mountains of Colorado or the woods of New Hampshire, but we are finding new, colorful paths to share our interests, our worries, the wonderful and frustrating experiences of being a person right now. We design fantastic treehouses built by giants and dragons, encounter fairies that cast crazy-making hormone spells on innocent 12-year-olds, paint our faces while stranded on islands with super hero clowns, make villainous puppets with intricate backgrounds. The challenges that were once largely physical are now focused on braving the unknown and traversing imaginal landscapes to help drive a narrative. The collaboration that was once an in-person theatrical experience has taken a different stage and found purchase in the evolution of stories.
In listening to them, writing them, and playing with them, we can better understand how specific narratives have come to shape the way we see things (or don’t). Stories teach us about the breadth of history. When we begin to design our own, there is the opportunity to recognize how the world has been framed by stories over time. I love asking children about characters, landscapes, environments. Where is this character from? What do they want? How did they end up here? What are their parents like? Each component becomes an opportunity for history to show itself, for the subtle recognition that there is a biography behind every character, every detail.
A story can also be like a dream, free form, arrhythmic, illogical. Stories are comforting, soothing in the face of challenge. While they often do, they need not carry an overt lesson or moral. Stories don’t need to make sense either. They are both tools for understanding, explaining the world and also for undoing it. When I taught preschool one of my favorite activities was sitting with the 3-5 year olds and writing their stories. I loved watching tales emerge behind their eyes, without embarrassment, shaped by their surroundings and the wanderings of thought. I love being reminded of that potential, each moment charged with possibility.
So now, as has always been the case, I am learning with kids. We begin and enter stories together, learning how to cooperate and build them as we would a home or garden. Without asking or talking about it directly, the pressing matters for children emerge through characters and narratives. We find agency in the shaping of stories, spatial awareness as we draw maps of the imagined environment, work with empathy as we grow characters, and enhance executive functioning through developing plot structure. Storycamp - a moniker that, until now, needed its follow up (Dangercamp) to really make sense - has found its namesake. I can’t wait for the return of Storycamp Dangercamp, but I am also grateful to explore this new expression of curriculum.