Eco-Spirituality ~Web of Life Activities
I write often about what the biological sciences have named the web of life; I suspect that people reading these posts have a pretty good idea of what that concept embraces, yet it’s a metaphor that might be difficult to teach in an experiential way. It’s one thing to read the science; it’s another to deepen the understanding through our hearts. So I offer these with the caveat that experiential learning rarely translates on the printed page. The value of this activity, however we design it and for whom it is offered, I can say by my own first hand experience that this ecological exercise is invaluable on many levels. It can be adapted for particular habitats, with particular age groups or across generations. I trust that the principles will translate well, and the specifics will evolve according to your needs. I offer this with gratitude to one of my mentors, Candis Whitney.
This activity will help one have a better understanding of how everything is dependent on everything else. It is important to remember that animals and plants have an important part on our planet.
1 spool of yarn
Label a set of cards with parts of the food chain. Examples: sun, plants, insects, bear, tiger, rabbit, spider, songbird, hawk, water, snails, fish, turtle, alligator, frog, antelope, etc. Make sure there are more plants and small critters than large ones. Add a “people” card to show the impact humans have on the environment.
Use some of yarn to make a necklace with each card.
1. Pass out these necklace cards to all the volunteers.
2. Everyone stand in a circle. Think about which card represents what all life needs to grow (the sun). Hand the end of the yarn to the “sun” card.
3. What would be next in the chain? It would be plants, so everyone with “plant” cards would take a section of the yarn. The sun person still needs to hold tight to the end of the yarn.
4. Continue through the list in the same manner until all the labeled cards have been used.
5. When all the cards have been used discuss what would happen if one of the items were removed from the environment. Start removing things from their environment. If something will not survive with another thing, another critter must be taken out of the web. As the chain collapses, discuss the importance of each living thing in every habitat.
As we were leaving the classroom to walk to the grassy hilltop where I had decided to weave our Web of Life activity, I asked each of the 22 students to pick up one piece of garbage as his or her ‘Entry Ticket’ to our game. Upon arrival, I collected these in a pile (a visual statement in itself!) and let it be for later use in our web activity.
Before beginning, we all sat in a circle with our eyes closed and listened to the surround sound. After a few minutes, I slowly and softly narrated the following:
Everything in nature is connected. Everything in nature is interdependent. When left alone, nature is in balance. Nature is made up of cycles, constantly turning, giving and receiving. Nothing is taken without something being given in return: water, carbon/oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorous. All of these nutrients that give us and all living things life are constantly being recycled, nothing is thrown out and wasted and therefore they never run out. Let us create that web of life today and watch as we weave the web together.
I then asked for the two ‘helper’ students, (‘Web supporters), to distribute the cards, asking that students: (a) made sure that only he or she saw what was written on it (b) to close their eyes again and ‘become’ what was written by visualizing how they looked, where they lived, what they ate, and how they moved, etc. After a few minutes, I asked for a volunteer to enter our circle and ‘act out’ what they were so we could all guess it and then went in the sun’s direction around the circle with each student taking a turn. I felt this would add more to the game, and most of the students seemed to enjoy acting out their role. A few students needed some ideas or encouragement from their neighbours and peers, and it took some time to have the students realize this was not a game of charades where they were trying to guess as quickly as possible what the person was and to let the person in the circle act out their role, but it did help the students later, I feel, to identify with their role.
I asked the students where we should begin, and although a number had a case for soil, water and air, most agreed that all life began with the sun and thus this was whom we should start with. I had decided to ask the two web supporters to be the ‘weavers’ and to take the string from student to student after they had stated their connection rather than throw it, which, though fun, I felt might distract from the game.
In general, the game proceeded very smoothly, and the students came up with some wonderfully original connections to do with warmth, housing, shade, play, as well of course with the connections related to food/water/nutrition and protection. There was a tendency to get stuck in the ‘I eat’ mode, but a little encouragement by the teacher to come up with some other link helped to guide it towards other areas of connection as well.
After we were all connected in the web I had thought to ask students to call out some of the connections they saw all around them again, but time had gone by as usual, so although I would encourage this with a longer session I decided to move on. I asked one of the helpers to pretend he was a flood and to come rushing down onto the web and to lie on it, pointing out how it sagged but bounced back after the flood had passed. The
other helper then became an earthquake and danced about the web knocking students gently as she went with a similar result. This of course could also be done with a gale or monsoon rain, quite effectively and visually!
To let them see what would happen if some of the element were destroyed, I decided to ask the helpers to collect the pile of garbage and walk around the circle scattering it as they went. I then asked who would be directly or indirectly effected by this and asked soil, water, fish and eagle (the first four to come up with a statement) to let go as they stated they would be polluted or would die from eating it. Next I asked the two students to move around spraying the circle with pesticides, and asked air, insect and apple to let go as they said they would be polluted or poisoned by this spraying. Finally, I asked the students to chop down the tree, and asked the tree, kingfisher and monkey to let go.
Looking at the sorry state of the web I asked who had caused this and let them connect it with human (our) activities to satisfy our needs and wants, that though similar to the species in the web were somehow destroying it. I then asked what we could do to restore the web, if anything. The first comment was pick up the garbage, so I let the two students do this and without me even asking the soil, water fish and eagle took up the string again. Next was a suggestion to throw some compost on the circle and then to plant some seeds and with each action the web came back strong and firm again!
As a final comment I asked if we should invite the two ‘humans’ back into our circle and after an (almost!) unanimous ‘YES!’ they came and sat down amongst us.
I decided that there was no need to say anything after this so we just sat for a few minutes and shared what we had just been through in a big noisy circle as the two humans collected the string!
This is an experiential learning exercise adaptable to virtually any circumstance. Personally, I am committed to intergenerational learning, but I am including a link here for a similar activity developed for young children, and another developed around a specific ecosystem.