Teeming with fairy tale and folklore, our ancient woodlands have all the ingredients to spark young imaginations and inspire a journey of creative discovery through storytelling, says children’s author Jules Miller.
UK youngsters trail behind the rest of the world academically according to recent media reports - but what about their creativity? When our children can seem in semi-permanent ‘lock-down’ with their hi-tech gadgets and homework; how can we even begin to get them thinking ‘outside of the box’? In my experience (as both a parent and now an author of children’s books) the most powerful way to spark a child’s imagination is through story telling. By nurturing the next generation’s imaginations early on, we can encourage them to build their storytelling skills and find their own narrative voice - before they are drowned out by technology, or buried deep in Ofsted reports.
Making time for creativity is important; but so too, is the right environment. To give children the best possible chance to learn the art of storytelling; we need to give them variety, away from screens and schools and screeching cars. A peaceful place is good. A magical place - teeming with natural history that constantly evolves? Perfect! And, there is no better way to rediscover the lost art of storytelling than to begin with the age old line: Once upon a time...
Once upon a time, there was a forest...
Forests and fairy tales go together like bluebells and woodlands: magical and timeless. The light and shade of the forest environment, has been a firm favourite for authors and storytellers through the ages. From the forest’s darkest corners - an ideal villain’s hideout - to glorious sunlit clearings in the woods conjuring the perfect spot for happy-ever-after endings, the woods have it all. It’s hard to imagine a traditional fairy tale without an ancient forest. Beauty and the Beast, Hansel and Gretel, and little Red Riding Hood, the list is endless! Enid Blyton’s ‘The Enchanted Forest’, Tolkien’s; ‘The Hobbit’ - even The Gruffalo; with its singsong rhyming text, is set in a woodland. Include a few anthropomorphised creatures, hairy monsters, and a deep, dark, wood, and you have all the magical ingredients for a classic children’s story.
If you go down to the woods today...
A forest offers visitors an ever changing environment; brimming with sounds, smells, and textures. Every season nature brings another visual drama. Winter offers the spooky silhouettes of gnarly branches; the ideal prompt for a narrative crammed with witches and spells. In the spring; ferns unfurl like the heads of fiddles to inspire a story about a magical, musical forest!
Oral storytelling is a tradition that can be traced back to our earliest ancestors; and teaching children about some of their ancient myths and legends, will undoubtedly captivate their interest. Forests are rich with living history, and trees are a wonderful subject matter for your children to use as a starting point for their own fairy tales. How about the Birch; how did this tree get its beautiful silver bark? Perhaps a greedy money-mad Queen was taught a life-lesson when a fairy turned her into a Silver Birch tree?
And, what about the Weeping Willow, what’s his story? Why the tears? From toadstool rings - perfect for pixie gatherings - to the sounds of distant woodland creatures, throughout the forest nature has supplied story ideas in abundance.
Make some time to show and tell
Whether you have time for a brisk walk in the woods; or are planning to spend a family holiday in a forest, using some of this precious time to create and share stories is hugely valuable. From my own childhood experience; ambling along - sticks in hand - while listening to my dad’s make-believe-tales, have inspired many of my story ideas: stripy peppermint trees with curly branches in topsy-turvy-tales akin to ancient folktales - are all testament to a family tradition of storytelling.
With some gentle encouragement, your children’s confidence to create their own stories will grow. And of course, it is worth remembering, that not all stories need to start with the line ‘Once upon a time in a forest’ - but, take it from me - it is a truly wonderful place to begin.
Top tips for young storytellers
1. Most trees have their own magic and myths associated with them - so it’s worth doing a little bit of research before you set off.
2. A forest treasure hunt is good way to the creative juices flowing. Create a story featuring all your woodland treasures.
3. Write a mini masterpiece with only a few words: A beginning, middle and end - in no more 50 words!
4. Create a rhyming story: try following the style of the Gruffalo and the Deep Dark Woods. Spot faces in tree trunks.
5. Get children to spot a tree’s eyes, nose and mouth, and create a comical tree character.
Jules Miller is the author of two children’s books: ‘Ellie and the truth about the Tooth Fairy’ (publishing early June) and ‘When Night Became Day’ (due out early 2015). Both are available to pre order from Amazon.