Tracy Schagen is the owner and director of The Greenwood School, a Pagan-inspired preschool in Southwest Austin. Tracy enjoys creating nature-based curriculum for children and building community for their families and friends. Sage Holli Bara, who wrote the song on which Tracy’s guest post below is based, co-founded The Greenwood School with Tracy in 2001. Sage is a certified Music Together instructor and enjoys teaching music in and around Austin.
Each morning at The Greenwood School, in Austin, Texas, we welcome the directions and the elements with a song. As we sing the beautiful tune, we turn our circle to face first north, then east, then south, and finally west, appreciating each direction for its contribution. During each of our eight festivals, our morning greeting to the four directions is embellished by four mini-cauldrons. Each cauldron contains a representation of the element associated with its direction. We place the cauldrons just outside our circle, creating a compass rose around us. For north, our cauldron contains a bit of rich soil from the school garden. For east, a small piece of dry ice transforms into white vapor floating away on the morning breeze. The cauldron on the south contains a dancing flame, easily created by lighting a small amount of alcohol. Our cauldron on the west contains a pool of cool spring water. The Greenwood School’s large Hill Country playground offers ample opportunities for children to connect these symbols to processes and cycles of nature.
This circle song has been offered to us by Sage Holli Bara, a former administrator and current music teacher at The Greenwood School. The song welcomes the four directions and acknowledges the gifts of the elements.
C F F A G F C D F D C
Good morning to the north, your earth is so strong.
C F F A G F C D F D C
Good morning to the east, your winds bring us song.
C F F A G F C D F D C
Good morning to the south, you warm us each day.
C F F A G F A A G F F E G F
Good morning to the west, on your waters we float away.
“Good morning to the north, your earth is so strong.”
The strength of the earth is quite easy to demonstrate in Central Texas since we must bust rocks for hours to plant a tree on our playground. The children love to move soil, sand, and rocks. They labor daily, pushing and pulling against the strength of the earth. Their efforts are rewarded as their bodies grow strong and their castles grow high.
Gnomes are the elemental mascot of The Greenwood School, so the children are very familiar with the image of a garden gnome carrying a bundle of flowers. Our gardens are ornate, with gnome statues that come alive in the imagination. From the window we see children stop with their parents to admire the garden gnomes as they come and go along the path. We have one child that respectfully addresses each individual gnome as he passes. His father patiently waits until the child’s ritual is complete. While gnomes work with the soil, rocks, and crystals, dwarves dig beneath the surface, and giants wander above it.
The earth elementals are all continually healing the land, so that we may continue to live on it. Near the end of summer, we use the tale of The Three Billy Goats Gruff to inspire strength and courage during life transitions. The presence of the troll forces each “kid” to find his own inner strength before crossing to the green meadow. The children act out the story on our own garden bridge, choosing and changing roles tentatively at first, but over time, every child becomes bold when confronted by the grumpy troll. Every year, a particular child will want to be the troll again and again. This is often a child with self-esteem challenges. Dramatically playing an elemental role can be a magical and transformative experience.
“Good morning to the east, your winds bring us song.”
I was playing a hand drum one day and took advantage of the children’s curiosity about the drum. I was able to bring to life the line in the song that says “your winds bring us song.” After striking the drum, I waved it left and right in the air to cause the air to reverberate around the children. They were so close that they could feel the air moving in sync with the sound. It was amazing. They literally felt the sound of air moving. I extended the learning to voice and challenged the boys and girls to take a deep breath of air and hold a note with me until they ran out of air and had to breathe in again. Then I demonstrated the concept with a balloon, allowing air to escape the pinched-off balloon, squealing loudly and then tapering off to a deeper sound and sputtering into silence. Zephyrs are elementals of the wind, so we enjoy them whenever they come to visit. When a windy day presents itself, we quickly help the children tie streamers to sticks. Like zephyrs, the children enjoy dancing in the wind with the colorful streamers.
“Good morning to the south, you warm us each day.”
We welcome fire into our experience as often as safely possible. We all know that children love dragons. The great dragons purge and cleanse with fire—leaving only truth and purity behind. “Puff, the Magic Dragon” is one of our favorite songs. Puff is a story of friendship and change. It is a story about growing up. The element of fire helps children understand that growing up comes with responsibility and privilege. Children who desire the privilege of “playing with fire” must commit to learning safe practices. The privilege must be earned. Knowledgeable adults can raise safe, responsible, and capable children who will enjoy camp fires, fireworks, toasting marshmallows, and many other fun traditions around this element.
After a windy storm, the children collect fallen sticks and branches and place them on the brush pile. These gifts from the Zephyrs accumulate as the children build anticipation for the solstice bonfire. We set the pile aflame in the evening at solstice time. Since our school is rural, we are also free to demonstrate the safe use of firecrackers. Some children prefer to watch from indoors, peering excitedly through the window. Over time, they usually develop tolerance for the noise and join the group outdoors. I have found that the little poppers are the most fun for children because they can hold them and pop them on their own.
I find teaching children about fire to be the most fun and exciting part of my work with elements. One of my favorites is the Jack-O-Flame we make for our Samhain Festival (Halloween). Once the Samhain festival was forced indoors by storms, and we watched from a window, as our Jack-O-Flame burned wildly in the pouring rain to the soundtrack of booming thunder. It is a beautiful thing when the elements teach children about compromise, contrast, and alignment.
“Good morning to the west, on your waters we float away.”
Since many Texas families vacation on our Hill Country lakes and along the Gulf Coast, we bring lots of boats and sea shore images to our stories and songs. The imagination of the child floats away as he explores the element water. This delightfully cooling element becomes an obsession in the Texas summer heat. Getting wet is the only way to escape the suffocating damp air. Water is lifting to our spirits. Water loves to play. Who can resist the guessing game “Will it sink or will it float”? Water will play this game with you endlessly.
The water elementals, the undines, enjoy frolicking in our fountain in front of our school. The fountain and stone statue are protected by gnomes and watched over by flower fairies. Several varieties of birds, including hummers and wrens, come and visit the fountain every day and pay their respects to the undines. Children beg to hold the water hose that replenishes the vanishing water. While we fill the fountain bowl, I share stories of how the fence lizards breathe fire at the water to make it rise up and become the clouds that bring rain.
“Below, above, we gather together, we share our love.”
This reference to the element spirit reminds us that we are connected, sharing energetic unity in this life. The elementals exist all around us, above and below, in nature and in cities everywhere.