The first Great Stick I brought to our outdoor children’s program was a many-branched staff I’d cut from a dying cedar hedge. It was rough and twiggy and almost as tall as me, and the only remarkable thing about it was the fact I’d hauled it along. “Why?” the circle of children asked me, quizzically.
“Because,” I exclaimed emphatically, ‘it’s… Great Stick!”
At that point, I barely understood myself why I insisted on ferrying the cumbersome thing to and from our woodland preschool. I simply recalled how much I’d enjoyed carving and decorating my own walking stick during camping and hiking trips as a kid, and figured Outdoor School needed a mascot. We needed a Great Stick.
I had been recruited by the new North Shore program, largely because I am, by trade, a gardener, and have an affinity for plants, mud, being outdoors, and, as it happens, children. I took the opportunity to heart, excited to be part of the West Coast renaissance of the Forest School philosophy that has come out of the UK and Scandinavia. Our program also incorporates the Reggio Emilia concept of child-led free play. For anyone who has read Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods, the idea of getting kids (especially city kids) to play outside in nature is an increasing priority in our over-protected tech age.
Almost immediately, it became apparent that Great Stick was going to play a significant role with our troop of 3-6 year olds.
As any parent will tell you, when (or if!) you send a kid out into the woods, the first thing they’ll pick up is a stick. And unlike a standard I-phone or digital doo-hickey, a stick is much more likely to take out an eye. In play groups of up to ten children, stick-related injury can be one of the main concerns. The next concern in line is the often closest association children can make when playing with sticks: weapons and guns. Nothing like an idealistic nature program turning into the infant-edition of Hamburger Hill!
We already had a stick rule with the children, made easy to remember with the phrase, “Big Sticks need Big Spaces!” They were allowed to play with any stick they liked, so long as they had enough space. No matter what, this kind of rule still requires constant vigilance. And because Great Stick went everywhere with us, it became a constant reminder, and constant training for the kids. Everyone was allowed the honour of carrying or incorporating Great Stick into play, but everyone also knew Great Stick was important (if only because I seem inexplicably attached to it), and certainly not to be used as a weapon.
At one point in that first program, a pair of devious twins made a point of challenging my attachment to a stick. All this Greatness was fine, but didn’t make enough sense.
“Why do you bring it every time??” they demanded to know.
They couldn’t understand it. Together, they conspired to take Great Stick to the murkiest section of the creek and bury it in the mud. They decided that would dissuade me from retrieving it, forever. It was just a stick, after all.
After the children had left with their parents, I returned to the creek and rescued Great Stick, washing away layers of mud. I still didn’t understand the psychology of Great Stick, and indeed was beginning to feel like some equivalent to a Crazy Cat Lady. The Crazy Stick Lady. All I knew was there was something important about Great Stick.
The next meeting, the children were amazed at the miraculous return. Something shifted. Great Stick was not that easily dispatched. It was a survivor, and from then on, if it was (accidently) misplaced, it became a group mission to recover it. While other sticks may come and go, our own Great Stick became a constant companion.
As time went by, Great Stick became many things. During our opening song, in which a jingle-bell is passed around a circle to each child, Great Stick would be the last to get a turn, as the welcoming finale. If someone got ‘stuck’ in the mud or at the bottom of a bank, Great Stick would come to the rescue, starting a tradition of children rescuing other children. If the tarp we used as a rain shelter sagged too much in the middle, Great Stick came in handy to prop it up. If a certain amount of magic was required, to turn dragons back into kids for example, Great Stick had acquired enough mystique to get the job done.
Over time and as the children became more immersed in forest play, their first associations with sticks-as-weapons dissipate. Sticks become so much more than weapons—they are for building shelters, for making fishing poles, for reaching and rescuing, for magic wands and dragging along the forest floor to leave a trail. They are for making bridges and forest couches and nests, for stick-people and puppets and leaf-popsicles and paintbrushes and peeling. In short, sticks are useful, and open to limitless interpretations. They are, truly, Great.
Our first program ran from January to June. The last week of the program, I took Great Stick home and, using a wood burner, replicated a pattern of sun and trees and water down its length. On the last day, we made a ceremony of sawing Great Stick into tiny decorated pieces for each child to take home. I am told that the children and their little pieces of Great Stick were inseparable for weeks.