I had a unique opportunity this month: I was paid to visit Middle-Earth.
I got to work for a week at Trackers Northwest’s “Welcome to Middle Earth” day camp for 8-10 year olds. The camp uses the trappings of Elves and Orcs and the One Ring to teach nature awareness and wilderness skills, by framing activities as a fantasy quest. I jumped at the chance to be involved.
I had a blast tromping through the woods with nine boys, practicing stealth, riddling with Gollum, finding clues, singing in Elvish. We journeyed to Rivendell (a cabin in the woods) for our last two days, met another group of adventurers and combined our quests–ours to destroy the One Ring, theirs to safeguard the Elven Ring Nenya.
I learned a lot about storytelling, group facilitation, and, well, kids. For instance, it was very important to establish that we were telling our own story, not recreating one from books or movies. This is especially hard when your story is based on a series of books and movies. People of all kinds are well versed in the use of knowledge for power and dominance–this is usually called “expertise.” With kids this is especially raw and potent: I’d say, “look, it’s a letter from Gandalf,” and a 10 year old would shout, “Gandalf’s dead!” this made it important to get all the kids on board with the concept that we’re all working together to tell our own story.
Next time I’ll lean hard on that right from the start. By the last day of camp, everyone was pretty focused and bought in to our “quest” and its fictional framework. When I led the troop into the woods of Rivendell (our Rivendell) to find the Fires of Mt. Doom (our Mt. Doom) that had bubbled up there, that we might destroy the One Ring (our One Ring) and extinguish the flames from the land, nobody balked or heckled. In fact, I never saw so much focus. I’d been pleading in vain all week for these kids to practice moving quietly through the woods and watch for hand signs from the person in point. But this time, they did it. They crept in silence, the tension palpable. We moved as one, halting, crouching, looking and listening. As we neared the spot where foul Orcs guarded Mordor’s fire, the anticipation was nearly unbearable. Some kids whispered, “I know it’s just a story but I’m actually scared!” Then we fanned out with our foam arrows at clearing’s edge, and struck! When they were too much for our arrows, we drove them away with Elvish Song, and were victorious!
I think my young charges were slightly shocked that I was really going to let them throw my souvenir replica One Ring into a roaring fire, and not fish it back out. I saw the last vestiges of cynicism drain away as it sailed into the embers.
Imagine if I could get that buy-in right from the start. Imagine if, by the end of the first day, I had nine kids all committed, primed and ready to enter into a shared Dream together, to all shape that dream as equal partners. The emerging narrative of our week together was primarily shaped by me and my ideas and props, secondarily by the books and movies, and only tertiarily by the kids’ imaginations. I can only dream of what that would look like flipped on its head–children boldly and brilliantly seizing story in their hands, learning to break down and eventually ignore the constraints of popular culture and consumer entertainment they’ve been bred to. next year, I hope to see that firsthand.
That’s what I strive for, in all arenas, with Story by the Throat.