Prairie Sky School produces “eco-play”

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The 2019 Cathedral Village Arts Festival featured a production focused on the environment/Jeremy Davis

Cathedral Village Arts Festival performance focuses on environment

The Cathedral Village Arts Festival came and went, and in my new position as staff writer here at the Carillon, I had a great time trying to decide what aspects of it to bring to this summer issue. There was a lot to see, and not enough time for me to see it all, but what stuck out to me when I looked at the schedule was a performance at the Artesian put on not by a company or individual artist but an entire school. I decided to go and see Prairie Sky School, a QIS (qualified independent school) in Regina, debut their production of The Lorax. I needed to satisfy my curiosity after seeing that it was called an “eco-play.”

The school-age l students of our city are taking a lead from Greta Thunberg and organizing weekly climate strikes at the Legislative Building, organized with help from the Enviro Collective.. I was curious before how kids were engaging with that issue when they weren’t at the climate strikes, and it was clear from the performance that they matter every day of the week.

The Lorax, is a classic Dr. Seuss story about a creature who speaks on behalf of the trees in the forest where he lives. The antagonist of the story is “The Onceler,” who claims to only be chopping down trees to make a few products to sell, but ends up destroying the forest altogether. There was an animated movie made of it recently, but the original animated version, with its art style similar to the book, is the one I remember from childhood. Watching it as an adult, it still matters – the message, in fact, feels more profound and always hits a little harder as the climate crisis and its marriage to capitalism becomes more and more dire. Looking back, it was probably one of the childhood movies that shaped me, and I think that was a good thing. I was happy to see kids engaging with it like I did.

The performance itself was one that integrated the entire school – and as someone who’s been in sold-out shows at the Artesian, I can say that it was really, really packed – from the youngest to oldest students, with the story of the Lorax broken up into lines for the kids to read. There were also dance performances, musical numbers, and amazing props like a factory that contained working gears and brightly-coloured birds made by the students themselves. I was taken with the way the whole school came together as a community to perform this at the Arts Festival, for more people than just their parents, Allan Dotson, the drama teacher at Prairie Sky who was involved with the coordination with the show, had a lot to share about what education can be for kids, and how it can integrate a real understanding of the world around them when it matters most.

Dotson is Prairie Sky’s STEAM teacher, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math. This might seem like an odd combination of subjects, and the teaching of engineering to young children might seem odd in itself, but Allan explained that Prairie Sky “believe[s] in hands-on, active learning” and that he “work[s] to integrate the Arts into all subject areas.” It was clear that Prairie Sky kids were used to producing real things and interacting with real people, but also that they were used to art and expressiveness being part of how they did that. For example, the props in the production involved working gears and were made by the Grade 3-6 students themselves, but they were also ways of making the stage exciting and colorful, and to boot, they were all made with recycled materials. The factory prop helped students engage with the idea of corporate environmental damage, and they were also introduced to the making of simple machines.

Another really fun and innovative feature of the production was the use of satirical advertisements students made for the thneed, the product made with trees that is sold in the fictional world of the Lorax. Parents in the Prairie Sky community even made actual, knitted thneeds that were sold in the lobby of The Artesian, with the proceeds going to TreeCanada to help reforestation and greening of urban spaces. Young students really were getting an idea of what kind of efforts exist in their community, and then they were going out and doing something, which I don’t think a lot of us learn to do until we’re well into our adulthood. Dotson said the “large, collaborative, multidisciplinary” projects that students engage in at Prairie Sky, reflect the idea Prairie Sky has about what childhood education should be and He also spoke about the need for students to experience the world outside the classroom.

“I believe early childhood education should include a lot of actual nature experiences (active outdoor play and exploration, camping, and working with natural materials), personal responsibility (community cleanups, and learning to care for our own things), connection to food (cooking, gardening, and farm visits), engagement in meaningful activism (like the student climate strikes), and opportunities to collaborate with other people (peers, students of all ages, and our larger community).”

Having just volunteered with the U of R’s Green Patch, I can testify that engaging with food, the outdoors, and collaboration is incredibly satisfying once you learn how to do it. Prairie Sky is a seems to be giving its students a leg up in this regard, and I have to admit that it made me excited to think what these kids were going to be interested in doing years from now. I wasn’t just watching a play, but being taught about the kind of opportunities that exist for community engagement in Cathedral and Regina as a whole.

If you’re an education student, I think that the example of what Prairie Sky is doing is worth considering even in the conventional school system. There are so many ways for young children to learn, and even here in our universities, we can apply what Mr. Dotson says about education to our own academic process. We are here to learn, but are we remembering where we are learning, and the world that we’re going to enter once we graduate? Among the fun and festivities of CVAF, this little production of a Dr. Seuss story provided a surprising opportunity to reflect.

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