First Blog Post – Narrative Journey

Welcome to the very first Natural Connections blog post, it comes from Philip Waters. Congratulations Phil for sending something so quickly, and thank you for providing us with such a thought-provoking piece to get us started.

Phil is a Director at ‘I Love Nature’ – an activities, training and consultancy company in Cornwall, a doctoral student at the European Centre for Environment and Human Health, University of Exeter Medical School, and Play Project Coordinator at the Eden project, Cornwall, UK. With an interest in children’s fiction and a career of over 20 years working in various children’s environments, Phil’s research brings together play, narrative and nature within a visual methodological framework that aims to critically develop a form of praxis called Narrative Journey. He is a keen writer, filmmaker and story-maker, and enjoys bringing these elements together in his research with children.

Narrative Journey

Hello my friends. My name is Hedge. Professor Fungus Hedge – international explorer, adventurer and seeker of all things weird; which brings me to this place. Have you seen them? The little people? Well, that doesn’t surprise me. They’re shifty little blighters. You can’t trust them, you really can’t.

Last year those cheeky little blighters stole the Giant’s underpants, much to his annoyance, but this year they’ve really gone and done something stupid. They’ve stolen the golden cow that was gifted to the Goblin Queen on her 150th birthday. And as you well know, golden dung is a rarity in these parts. She’s rather blooming furious. She’s already torn through a fairy village, and that was just after she trampled on a gnome’s house and just before she dredged the bottom of a mermaid’s cave. I hear she’s heading for the kingdom of the elves next, and then… She’s coming here!

You’re going to have to learn to defend yourselves, which means stomping through boggart-infested swamps, scaling gigantic beanstalks and running real fast like an icy-cold wind is about to bite you on the bottom!  More importantly, you’re going to have to learn the ancient art of golden dung-sniffing. That way you’ll be equipped to capture those pesky little pixies unaware, snatch back the golden heifer and appease the ugly Goblin Queen. You’re going to need the agility of a cat, the bravery of a bear, the sneakiness of a snake and the wits of a… a person with their wits about them!

So who’s up for this here quest, then?


Imagine being a child going to school and being approached by your PE teacher who is dressed as an explorer, explaining, in no uncertain terms, that a quest is underway where goblins need avoiding, pixies need detaining and a golden cow needs rescuing! Imagine further that the quest takes you across open countryside where you are free to run around, climb and scramble over landscape features, duck, roll, crouch, sneak and crawl through undergrowth, and carry and throw objects – all of which are highly active movements, yet, you wouldn’t think that what you were doing was sport or physical education. Imagine, also, being able to control the story as both a player and character and that what you say or do steers the play in multiple and possible new directions, because in the quest nobody knows the ending, not even the teacher! It’s not pre-determined, scripted or defined. It’s open-ended and exposed to external forces and subjected to bias in all its glorious narrativity. This is, Narrative Journey.

Going on a Quest

Going on a Quest

Narrative Journey

Narrative Journey (Waters 2011, 2014) is a method that uses narrative cues and story framing to incite children’s interest in the natural environment. On the one hand it could be as simple as a practitioner offering children subtle cues, like picking up a decaying leaf and claiming it to be a fairy’s wing and then watching what children do with that information. On the other, it could be a full-blown epic tale that spans vast areas of open countryside where children and their families navigate the landscape using story as a map or guide to landscape features.

Developed in my work at the Eden project, Narrative Journey is an experiential and place-based learning tool that, within the context of my research, has its application in children’s physical activity. Furthermore, Narrative Journey relies on a playful relationship that situates learning within the interactions and constructions that learners have with each other and with their immediate environment. All Narrative Journeys, large or small, begin with a call to adventure, a reason to journey or quest, or a reason to explore or investigate a landscape. For this blog, I am going to focus on ‘call to adventures’ that motivate children to move and be active in the natural environment.

Call to Adventure

Call to Adventure

Motive to move

What makes children move? In the context of play, Hughes (2002, 2006) suggests that locomotor play is ‘movement in any or every direction for its own sake.’ So sitting on a swing while being pushed doesn’t generally qualify as locomotor play, unless one exerts some force of one’s own to cause the swinging motion. The problem here is that children engage in all sorts of locomotion and very little of it could be genuinely classified as, ‘for its own sake.’ Rather, much of children’s physical activity, including locomotor, is to satisfy some other motive, like running because of being chased by trolls, or because someone gives a verbal command, like “Run, they’re coming.” It might equally be inspired by the landscape – climbing trees whose limbs are low and invite such action – or because an oncoming projectile necessitates immediate action, like ducking from a ball that’s whizzing towards you. In all these examples we can look at our actions as being extrinsically motivated. They come from the environment and therefore, in part, draw upon Gibson’s theory of affordance (Kernan, 2010; Kyttä, 2004, 2008). That is, children perceive opportunities in their environment, whether physical or cultural, that might satisfy a need to interact with that environment.

Motive to Move

Motive to Move

The theory of affordance suggests a natural process, an evolutionary mechanism built-in from birth that ensures we engage with the world around us. While this might be true, praxis, like Narrative Journey, enhances the human/environment relationship by presenting affordances that might be less obvious, or that are socially or culturally restricted: “You’re not to climb that tree; it’s too dangerous!” Thus, the careful placement of narrative cues – “That’s a climbable tree” – exposes the potential for children to have action upon the environment where that action might otherwise be hidden or obscured.

Of course, cues for action can be more dramatically exposed: “If we don’t get up that tree fast, we’re going to be smashed to a pulp by the Goblin Queen!” This example, while it enhances the evolving story, motivates action more provocatively than verbs alone. However, one should not ignore the brain’s own mechanisms for preparing the body for action because of verbs. As neuroimaging research suggests, the processing of action words employs motor regions within the brain that are involved in supporting the body’s actual locomotor activities (Lauro, Mattavelli, Papagno, & Tettamanti, 2013). Namely, ‘language, perception, and action are not isolated modules, but rather interact dynamically’ (Bedny & Caramazza, 2011), meaning that hearing and processing action words prepares the body’s motor system for action even if the action is not actually performed.

It’s not difficult to see the importance of using story and narrative in children’s physical education, however, what about the social and cultural contexts for stories, how might these shape physical actions?

A Climbable Tree

A Climbable Tree

There is a cultural aspect to Gibson’s theory that is little researched or expressed, but could be partly explained by narrative research. Let’s go back to that ‘climbable tree’ example. Engel (1995) suggests that children often tell stories as a means of constructing identity; that is, expressing through language the physical relationship they have with others and the material world. Goodson (2013) takes this notion further and suggests that ‘life stories,’ are not single narratives we hold within ourselves, or use to express ourselves, but rather they are part of a nexus of stories, or cluster of narratives that help shape the public world and our social place within it. Likewise, Frank (2010) expresses this rather poetically when he says we should let ‘stories breathe,’ meaning that stories can separate themselves from the teller and act on the world independently, shaping social and cultural identities. In the world of children’s play and outdoor physical activity and adventure education, there are nested and layered narratives that influence the way we approach action within natural habitats; stories that have a life of their own, yet continuously pervert our relationship with each other and with the material world. Fear of climbing trees, or being allowed to climb trees because of various health and safety rhetoric, is a case in point (Gill, 2007). As are the meta-narratives that shape the way we perceive environmentalism, conservation and sustainability (Corbett, 2006). Narrative Journey praxis does more than simply orientate children towards ‘climbable’ trees, towards the playability and materiality of the landscape, or what Factor (2004) calls, ‘invisible play-lines.’ It spins empathetic narratives, like saying: “that’s a sickly tree,” so that children recognise nature’s vulnerability and take into consideration how their actions will impact on natural habitats and ecosystems.

There is much more to research and practice within the field of narrative, story and environmental connectedness, but for the time being Narrative Journey can at least support teachers who want to engage children’s interest in being physically active within natural environments, and thus support their broader health and well-being and connectedness to nature.

Now where’s that golden cow?

Philip Waters

February 2015


Phil Waters

Phil Waters


Bedny, M., & Caramazza, A. (2011) Perception, action, and word meanings in the human brain: the case from action words. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1224, 14.

Corbett, J. B. (2006) Communicating Nature: How We Create and Understand Environmental Messages. Wahington: Island Press.

Engel, S. (1995) The Stories Children Tell: Making Sense of the Narratives of Childhood. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.

Factor, J. (2004) Tree Stumps, manhole Covers and Rubbish Tina: The invisible play-lines of a primary school playground. Childhood, 11(2), 12.

Frank, A. W. (2010) Letting Stories Breathe: a socio-narratology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gill, T. (2007). No Fear: Growing up in a risk averse society. London: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

Goodson, I. F. (2013) Developing Narrative Theory: Life histories and personal representation. London: Routledge.

Hughes, B. (2002) A Playworker’s Taxonomy of Play Types (2nd ed.). London: PlayLink.

Hughes, B. (2006) Play Types: Speculations and Possibilities. London: London centre for Playwork Education and Training.

Kernan, M. (2010) Outdoor Affordances in early Childhood Education and Care Settings: Adults’ and Children’s Perspectives. Children, Youth and Environments, 20(1), 26.

Kyttä, M. (2004) The extent of children’s independent mobility and the number of actualised affordances as criteria for child-friendly environments. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 24, 19.

Kyttä, M. (2008) Children in Outdoor Contexts: Affordances and Independent Mobility in the Assessment of Environmental Child Friendliness. Saarbrücken: VDM Verlag Dr. Müller.

Lauro, L. J. R., Mattavelli, G., Papagno, C., & Tettamanti, M. (2013) She runs, the road runs, my mind runs, bad blood runs between us: Literal and figurative motion verbs: An fMRI Study. NeuroImage, 83, 10.

Waters, P. (2011) Trees Talk: Are You Listening? Nature, Narrative and Children’s Anthropocentric Place-Based Play. Children, Youth and Environments, 21(1), 10.

Waters, P. (2014) Into the Woods: Stories and Nature in Playwork Training. Children, Youth and Environments, 24(3), 14.

Waters, P. (2014) Narrative Journey: storying landscapes for children’s adventurous outdoor play and experiential learning. Horizons, 67, 4.

Waters, P. (2014) Tracking Trolls and Chasing Pixies: Stories, Creativity and Children’s Outdoor Experiential Learning. Departures in Critical Qualitative Research, 3(3), 24.

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