Making Magical Forests!

IMG_20150512_102603For the Mother’s day weekend in May, I headed off to the Platbos Forest near Gaansbaai for a weekend of working with children, planting trees, camping and communing with nature during the annual Greenpop Family Fest. It was the second time I was going to join in the event to facilitate children’s activities through Elemental Kids. The first time I went was in 2014 but I only went up for one day with 2 other marvellous Elemental Kids facilitators, Janet Ranson and Bronwyn Booth. Last year, we created an area under the canopy of trees where children made colourful hanging hearts, crazy tree hats, whittled wood and crafted clay creatures. It was an absolute flurry of energy and excitement! We all loved the experience so much that when Greenpop invited Elemental Kids to get involved again this year, I decided to go for the whole weekend instead.

IMG_20140511_121200I have to admit though (blush), I am not a camper and so the idea of camping for the weekend was daunting. In fact, it had almost been 10 years since I last camped and even then it was not for personal pleasure, I went because I was taking a group of students on a camping trip. The generous offer by Greenpop to supply me with a ready made tent, including a mattress to sleep on, was an enormous relief! I cannot say thank you enough!

This year, I worked with a different group of exceptional facilitators – Penny Perrin (drama educator), Wendy Hitchcock (environmental educator) and Vincent Meyburgh (performance artist, Jungle Theatre). We had collaboratively worked out a feast of fun activities to create magic in the forest for children over the weekend. We had plans for fort building, massive bubble making, story telling with songs and fairy forest crowns!

I arrived on Friday afternoon with loads of supplies for the weekend fun and immediately set up space under the trees for fort building to take place. It was a set-help, self-directed activity that remained available all weekend. There were tools to work with, lots of rope, bamboo sticks, shade cloth and hessian. It was not long after the first children arrived that the first fort went up! Throughout the weekend, the forts under the canopy of the ancient trees morphed into different shapes and spaces as children organically explored what was possible with the available materials and the natural environment. Some children expressed such deep satisfaction at what they created and in many cases parents were invited too! It was lovely to observe and be part of.

The first night was relaxing, the other facilitator arrived and we finalised our plans for the weekend. We ate dinner around a huge camp fire, socialised, listened to some live music and before I knew it, it was time to head off to bed. I was grateful for my head light as I made my way to tent town and spent my first night camping. Honestly, there are some logistical elements of camping which experts should warn novices such as myself about. For example, blankets and sleeping bag material do not work well together, my strategy to keep warm that night ended up being a blanket hunt because it kept sliding off into the darkness!

On Saturday morning, everyone came together under the massive ancient stinkwood trees to prepare for the day of planting! If I am not mistaken, I think there were around 150 people attending the weekend (adults and children) to participate in the big plant. Since I missed this part of the event in 2014, I was eager to see what happened during the day. As we stood in a big circle around the  camp fire. We were invited to get into the planting spirit with a short inspiring talk and guided visualistion. It was fun and helped build a sense of community. We then headed off into our different colour groups (red, blue and green) to prep for the planting. Wendy and I were together in the red group for the weekend. Penny and Vincent in the green group. Each group played a fun game together, something about aliens and trees. With lots of laughter we headed off into the hills of Platbos, carrying our spades for the day to collectively plant more than 2000 indigenous trees before the end of the day.

The day of planting was amazing, I wish I had pictures to share with you, but it was a low electricity weekend and by Saturday morning my phone had died. So you will need to head over the Greenpop Facebook Page album to see what happened! What I can tell you is that it was a lot of fun! I was surprised at how easy the planting process was. I have dug holes before and imagined that the digging process was going to be laborious. Surprisingly it wasn’t, soft sandy soil combined with a well prepared planting area, enough spades, tarps to carry compost, accessible piles of compost and lots of hands made the experience really satisfying. In fact, we even had live music being played in the back ground as we worked together that morning, stopping every now and then to enjoy the majestic views (at the explicit encouragement of our group leader). I felt both useful and entertained, connected to others as well as a sense of space to be myself. It was lovely!

There was a tent up on top of the planting hill for children and adults to rest and it was here that the Elemental Kids facilitation team played an important role. Penny was the first on site just to check things out. She quickly found herself surrounded by eager children early in the day with a huge bag of wool donated by Wendy. What do you do with lots of eager children, mountains of colourful wool and sticks…well, of course you make god’s eyes! It was at this point in time and the god’s eye making marathon started up and remained a passionate endeavour until the very close of the event on Sunday. Try to picture this if you can, 10 to 15 children and young people, seated on blankets under a bright yellow Bedouin tent with piles of colourful wool, broken sticks and scissors strewn around them on top of a hill with views of a blue sky and valleys. This is the setting that Penny orchestrated production of god’s eyes for several hours. The other facilitation team members eventually found their way to the tent as well – I joined in, then Vincent who regaled the productive group with story telling and music on his guitar and eventually Wendy arrived too!

We expanded the activities to include making massive bubbles later on in the day. We made the mixture, experimented with ingrediants, constructed bubble wands from straws and string and then proceeded to make bubbles. It was harder than we thought it would be, but when a bubble worked it was magical! A giant bubble would stream out of a wand and sail up into the blue sky. Our little group of bubble makers would stand in watch in awe and periodically tell each other about the bubble’s progress. It was a lot of fun!!

Saturday came to a joyous conclusion with group pictures to celebrate the tree planting achievements, dinner, a huge campfire and more live music. I have to admit that by the end of the second day when I returned to my tent, I felt like a camping expert with my little torch suspended from the tent top (a new discovery), I ended up reading myself to sleep and did not spend the night hunting for my blanket 🙂

Sunday was another action packed day! This was when the corner for activities with children under the ancient stinkwood tree came alive again. Children were able to make forest crowns and they were brilliant 🙂

There was more story telling by Vincent with his musical guitar! We had a feast of god’s eyes being made too – you cannot know how satisfying it can be until you have tried it! Just find some beautiful wool, interesting sticks and see what happens. It is almost meditative 🙂

Another fun addition to the morning was making mobiles from the remains of alien trees burnt in a recent forest fire. Who knew that alien trees offered such bizarre shapes? It was lots of fun 🙂

The weekend concluded for me and a small group of other weekend participants with a forest tour by Francios Krige from Platbos Forest. It is him and his family that care for the forest and have partnered with Greenpop to reforest the area. The tour was another incredible experience. I have enjoyed walking in forests before but the enjoyment was primarily from an aesthetic/kinesthetic perspective. I loved the smell of the air, the sound of the leaves crunching under my feet, the texture of the bark, the shape of trunks and the silence. This time, I walked in the same type of space but it was enhanced with the information Francios shared with us. I learned how trees survive and make plans to keep themselves alive as their numbers diminish and environmental conditions become harsher. I discovered there are ways to look at how a tree has grown to understand what happened in the past, if it was eaten or cut, if the weather changed, or a natural disaster took place. I learned that trees are intelligent and intentional. Who knew? It was magical and I cant wait until next year to go back again.

If for any reason you have not been able to go the Platbos forest reserve yet or participate in the family fest, I want to encourage you to make time in your schedule to do it in 2016. The forest is almost fully replanted and there may only be another 2 family fest’s coming up. I guarantee, you will love it 🙂

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