Garden Schooling: Nature Spells

This week dawned sunny and cold – new and strange too. But life with kids doesn’t give you much time to pause and think (a blessing at times), so we’re moving onward with a new garden school project involving poetry, nature and art – to get us all out in that bright, life-affirming sunshine.

We decided to write wild acrostic poems based on the spells in The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris. For those who haven’t yet experienced the mesmerising images and spell-binding acrostics in this magical book, they aim to re-animate our relationship with the natural world –  returning to children (and adults) some of the words that were removed from the Junior Oxford English Dictionary in 2007.

Nic Wilson - Reading her First Poem

‘Fern’ – the first poem my daughter learned to read aloud

These words – acorn, bluebell, fern, kingfisher, newt, otter and more – were discarded in favour of more frequently used words in modern children’s vocabulary such as chatroom, blog and bullet point. The apparent redundancy of words connected to the natural world highlights the way childhood experiences have shifted as our kids become more focused on indoor, technological pursuits and ever more distanced from the world outside their back doors.

We are intending to use a couple of the nature spells as a starting point for an English and art project. We’ll be learning to read them aloud, working out how they make us feel and why, and then writing our own illustrated acrostics based on our experiences in the garden. If you don’t have a copy of the spell book, it’s a beautiful resource – especially for the next few weeks – which we’ve used time and time again. Or you can use other nature poems as inspiration, or just do the acrostic writing activities.

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Thinking about how the poem ‘Bluebell’ makes us feel

ENGLISH: WILD READING

  1. Choose a nature acrostic or other nature poem that you like to read. If you don’t have a copy of The Lost Words you could buy it from an independent bookshop or online from the Natural History Book Service (I don’t get any commission!!) The spell ‘Otter’ is also available to read on Jackie Morris’ website. Or you could read some of these other beautiful nature poems:

‘Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat’ by T. S. Eliot

‘A Dragonfly’ by Eleanor Farjeon

Daffodils’ by William Wordsworth

‘Whirligig Beetles’ by Paul Fleischman

‘The Eagle’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson

‘Little Trotty Wagtail’ by John Clare

‘Firefly’ by Jacqueline Woodson

‘The Darkling Thrush’ by Thomas Hardy (for older students)

2. Practice reading the poem aloud, thinking about the sounds (rhyme, alliteration, repeated sounds or phrases, short or long words, rhythm) and how the poet uses these to create meaning.

3.  Find somewhere outside (if you can) to record your nature poetry reading to send to a friend or relative. You could include a few comments at the end of the video on why you particularly like this poem – or if you are reading the poem over Zoom, Skype or another live platform, have a chat with your ‘audience’ about how the poem makes you both feel and why.

WRITING AN ACROSTIC

  1. Choose a plant or animal in your garden or in a local green space. Write a list of adjectives to describe your plant or animal – thinking about its colour, size, shape, smell and sound.
  2. Think about any associations your subject has in nature – maybe your plant is often found growing alongside streams (like Celandine) or with other plants (like daisies and dandelions in lawns). Or your animal might prey on other animals (like sparrowhawks on bluetits) or feed on plants (like snails on my lettuce!)
  3. Find a simile or metaphor to describe an aspect of your animal or plant. Maybe the colour of the hyacinths is ‘as white as freshly-fallen snow’ or the sound of the goldfinches flying over reminds you of the pealing of distant bells.
  4. Research a little about your chosen subject – does it have associations with myths or other stories, with certain seasons and weather, is it facing particular challenges at the moment – perhaps its habitat is being destroyed or there is conservation work being undertaken to protect populations around the UK?
  5. Use these ideas to write an acrostic which conjures your plant or animal into being on the page.

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    My daughter’s final poem – based on ‘Bluebell’

EXTENSION ACTIVITIES

  • The John Muir Trust has a series of excellent resources on The Lost Words – including ideas on analysing the poems and also covering a wide range of other subjects, eg. science, art, history, craft – which can be found on their website.
  • Look at Jackie Morris’ images that accompany the nature spells – can you find the words spelled out by the golden letters? Can you find the absence of each plant or animal and then its picture on the following pages?
  • Do some sketches of your chosen word – then use these as inspiration for illustrating your own acrostic.
  • Write and illustrate some more acrostics to make your own Lost Words book.

OLDER STUDENTS

  • Find a natural object, plant or animal in your garden or a local green space that interests you. Take photographs and do sketches – from different angles, in different lights – use these as the basis of a mood board to capture its essence – its ‘quiddity’. 
  • Create a piece of art – in any medium – based on the mood board, which depicts the absence of your subject. You might want to consider the different ways Jackie Morris conveys absence in her art – look at her use of white spaces, outlines, feathers, bubbles, stems and negative images.
  • Watch the YouTube video ‘Charm on, Goldfinch’. Using Jackie’s art and Beth Porter’s lyrics and music as inspiration, paint your own watercolour or compose your own song based on a favourite plant or animal, considering any challenges it faces in the modern world.

For updates on the nature spells project and more garden schooling ideas – you can follow the blog below…

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I’ll be posting another project soon and if you’d like to read about our last project you can explore our Seed Sowing Challenge here:

Garden Schooling: From Small Seeds…

3 thoughts on “Garden Schooling: Nature Spells

  1. tonytomeo says:

    Goodness! I can remember growing up in the Santa Clara Valley, surrounded by remnants of the formerly vast orchards, with a bit of nature mixed in between the abandonment of the orchards and their replacement by tract houses. In school, we learned that computers were the ‘Wave of the Future!’, as if that was somehow going to improve our lifestyles. It is what ruined everything here.

    Liked by 1 person

    • dogwooddays says:

      I guess there are both positives and negatives with computers – in this situation they have many benefits to help the kids do remote learning and contact friends and family, but they have obvious downsides too – especially if they are used instead of rather than as well as connecting with the natural world, books, people, etc…

      Liked by 1 person

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