Children braiding long length of yellow and red fabric in the woods.

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A forest for sharing fears and hopes

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The University of Edinburgh is working with local community groups to tackle one of the biggest issues of the day.

On the week that the COP26 climate summit drew to a close in Glasgow, the woodlands at Craigmillar Castle Park in the city of Edinburgh came alive with magic, mystery and adventure.

Local school children and families gathered for an outdoor circus experience, led by the mythical beings who inhabit the woods, to share their hopes for the future in the face of climate change.

Giving children a voice on climate change

This ground-breaking outdoor show was the climax of the Positive Imaginings project.

Developed by Rowanbank Environmental Arts & Education – an organisation that uses theatre and storytelling to explore environmental issues – and supported by the University’s Community Grants Scheme, this unique project sought to address the climate emergency for a young audience in an informative, meaningful and positive way.

Two performers in the words talking to a group of local schoolchildren and adults.

In the months running up to COP26, children from Edinburgh’s Castleview Primary School took part in a series of woodland workshops. Held in the natural environment, these workshops provided a safe space for the children to explore issues of climate change, to voice their fears and to feel listened to.

The children also shared their visions of what a positive future would look like for them. These imaginings were collected through recordings and were turned into a beautiful soundscape.

Communicating climate through circus

The children’s imaginings also formed the basis for an outdoor show. Seven performances were held during the week, four for groups of school children from Castleview Primary School, and another three for families living in the local community.

Co-created by professional theatre-makers, environmental educators and local children, in the run-up to COP26, the show brought the school children’s fears and hopes to life. Guided by the mythical beings who live and play in their branches, spectators were introduced to the many trees of the woods.

Performers hangs upside down on a from from a tree branch while school children parents watch.

Audiences learnt about the damage being caused by climate change and even got to experience a type of magic that can bring dreams to life. The performance ended with a children’s assembly, bringing everyone together around a fire pit to voice their dreams and imaginings for a better world.

The children’s hopes included an ending to deforestation, more people recycling and the use of clean energy.

Children sat in a circle in the woods while performer is sat with back to the camera in a green head-dress.
Image description: Young people share their ‘positive imaginings’ during a children’s assembly.

Bringing the University and communities together

The project was supported by the University’s Community Grants Scheme, which funds the development of projects and local action across the Edinburgh city region that has a positive social impact, as well as encouraging increased engagement with the University.

Rowanbank’s Artistic Director Lucy Power, who developed the Positive Imaginings project, is herself an alumna of the University. Having worked as an environmental consultant, Lucy felt that there must be a more effective way to engage people in important environmental issues, and co-founded Rowanbank in 2006.

Educator leads children and families on a woodland adventure holding onto a rope.
Image description: Lucy leads children and families on their woodland adventure.

“I dreamed up this project in lockdown while home educating my two children and wondering about creative ways to teach them about the climate crisis,” Lucy explains. “The inspiration for the Positive Imaginings project came after reading ‘The Future We Choose’ by Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac. I started thinking about how we could most effectively act on environmental issues and help address young people’s climate anxiety.”

In developing the project, Lucy and her team worked closely with Elizabeth Vander Meer, a Research and Policy Manager from the University’s Department for Social Responsibility and Sustainability. Elizabeth provided support through environmental and social knowledge, in addition to expertise in monitoring and evaluation.

The performances themselves were supported by University of Edinburgh student volunteers, who helped with set up and filming, providing insights into careers in the creative arts.

“I chose to volunteer to gain on-set experience that would improve my CV and help me to explore which career path I want to pursue” said Kate, a second-year Spanish and English Literature undergraduate. “It was a great experience that helped me to consolidate which areas of film production I enjoy. Being able to watch the play was an excellent bonus!”

A student volunteer helps set up for the performance laying things out in a circle in the woods.
Image description: A student volunteer helps set up for the performance.

A commitment to our region

The grants scheme is one of the ways in which the University demonstrates  its deep commitment to the city of Edinburgh and its surrounding region, with almost £400,000 distributed to local projects since 2017.

As the first university in the English-speaking world to be established on a civic foundation, social and civic responsibility are at the forefront of the University’s ambitions. We aim to support and enable local communities, working side-by-side to tackle some of the biggest issues of the day.

This year, in recognition of the COP26 climate conference, extra funds were made available through a green micro-grants scheme, supporting projects focused on sustainability and the natural environment.

Through the green micro-grants scheme, an extra £15,000 was awarded across 17 different projects. This included tree care for a newly planted forest near Auchendinny, Midlothian, and the establishment of a pantry in Stoneyburn, West Lothian, providing access to food while reducing waste going to landfill.

As these projects develop over the coming year, it is hoped that they too will inspire people across the region to take action on climate change.

Image credit: Chris Close