It is a good thing to tell tales
ONE OF the reasons Grace Banks gave up nursing was because there was never enough time to talk to patients. So her next career as a storyteller gives her all day to talk - and wide-eyed children hang on her every word.
This morning, she is leading a group of 16 seven-year-olds from Seaton Primary in Aberdeen round their local park. She shows them new buds and tells them the names of the trees and every so often, as they tramp round the park, they stop for a story.
"There was once a little man, a little fairy man, and his name was - what was his name?" she asks the class as they huddle round her gazing up, suddenly silent.
Today's Story Walk is part of the seven-week Aberdeen storytelling and Festival organised by the arts education team at Aberdeen City Council. It provides 13,000 places for schoolchildren aged 3-18 at more than 250 different events.
P3 pupils Lewis Yeats and his pal Deacon Rae are a demanding audience on the walk around Seaton Park. But Grace knows what she's doing and keeps introducing fresh activities, including regular races across the grass.
"It was really exciting. I liked learning about all those interesting plants - I didn't know them before," says Lewis.
"My favourite stories are ghost stories," Deacon volunteers.
The festival celebrates its 10th anniversary next year and over recent years it has doubled in size. It embraces a range of different art forms, linking the arts and education. Nearly every place gets filled, thanks to the tenacity of the organisers.
They keep a chart listing every class in the city and if a class is not booked in to attend any events, the arts education team is on the phone to encourage them.
The festival was the first of its kind in Scotland to promote stories to schoolchildren in response to concerns about levels of literacy and the diminishing role of storytelling in their lives. And for the first time this year, Aberdeen's mobile learning resource, The Reading Bus, is being used.
"We are trying to excite children and get them enthused about literacy, stories, story-making. So if you take that as your focus, there are no boundaries. We take the broadest view of storytelling," says festival co-ordinator Annette Murray, arts education co-ordinator with Aberdeen City Council.
"So that's why it's storytelling and theatre, because good theatre is telling stories, but it's in a different art form; dance is about story-telling - illustration, animation, puppetry, authors - it is all just different facets of the way you tell a good tale."
Among this year's performers are Catherine Wheels Theatre Company, with a play A Town Called Elsewhere, about being different and fitting in. It explores a variety of curricular areas outlined in the 5-14 guidelines and A Curriculum for Excellence, and includes a pre-show workshop and teachers'
"We also have Birds of Paradise Theatre Group, who work with able-bodied and disabled actors and specialise in working with people who have serious learning difficulties. So we have had them in three of our special schools, one of which has children who are profoundly impaired, physically and mentally, in the city," said Louise Baxter, cultural co-ordinator with the arts education team.
A six-strong team organises this festival and they have no qualms about giving schools the hard sell to reach 100 per cent uptake, as Ms Baxter explains: "We have watched over the years as little light bulbs go on in their heads. We see it work, we see kids coming from some of the most deprived areas in the city and come absolutely alight with it.
"So we want to do everything we can to ensure that as many kids as possible get that experience, because this is top quality.
"You can't get better children's theatre in Scotland, this is as good as it gets. And it's the same with the authors and storytellers - they really are the best available."