Special Effects – Slovakia

It’s been the 4th time. Our course “Special Effects“, training for trainers (co-funded through the European programme Erasmus+) with a special focus on nature-based education and spirituality, has just finished its fourth edition in Prenčov, Slovakia. How did it go? How was it “special”, this time? Let’s find out!

First of all, a bit of history. If you want to have an idea on how the other 3 editions went, you can have a look at this previous post.

This time we were hosted in a lovely, small village in Slovakia, where our friend Martin from the organisation Art Kruh lives with his family. The course was organised by Martina, from the organisation Play It Big. Martin and Martina (yes, it’s their real names and no, they are not related) were both participants to the Portuguese edition of the course, and decided to accept the challenge and host the next one. Well done, guys!

Here is a picture of Martin and Martina.

The group arrived on the 13th of May. Weather was rather bad, for the first part of the week. It really influenced the way the course developed day by day. In a nice way: I think it contributed to give to our experience a natural feeling of development, unfolding and moving from a more closed, heavy atmosphere to the lightness and warm sunny days of the last part.

It’s always interesting to look back at how a group looked, at the beginning of an experience together, and compare it with the last moments of the course. So many wonderful transformations!

And we started off. The first part is always a bit tricky, getting to know each other, establishing routines and working atmosphere, building trust (only to clamorously break it later, of course).

We asked the group to design the programme of the course together, by using drawing skills. And for the first time, something interesting and hard to explain happened.  People started to draw without the possibility to communicate verbally and divided in small groups, and this started to happen:

“Ok guys, without talking, start drawing…”

almost everybody started to draw

“Wait a second now…”

the same concept. Without any influence from our side!


5 minutes into the task, they were (almost) all drawing the same thing.

“You are not talking to the other groups? Really?”

A very similar concept seemed to inspire the mind of 30 focused participants. Talking about collective consciousness (or maybe collective inconscious manipulation? Who knows).

And the final result. Spirals! Spirals everywhere!

With the reassurance that whatever happened, we just needed to throw some spirals in the activities here and there to make everybody happy, we started our journey. Music was an important part of our communication and time together,


sometimes it would be the source of a very powerful inspiration,

Mali was able to play the violin in a most touching way.

well, and sometimes it would be played in a more improvised way. The result was great anyway.

Playing improvised didgeridoos taken from construction materials!

We also worked with clay, a very strong connection to the natural resources of the area and a very strong alchemic symbol in that it’s the combination of all four elements: earth and water, from which it comes; air, necessary to make it dry and fire, to bake it and give it the final shape.

“And now children, come and play!”

In a series of activities everybody was invited to create their own “totems”, which before the end of the course would come to symbolise the meaning of our experience together.

It doesn’t take much to unleash creativity.

We would often go to very inspiring walks. The area has a rich history, connected with gold and silver extraction. The nearby city of Banská Štiavnica was once known as “the little Prague” and was a major trade centre at the crossroads between Bohemia, Hungary and Russia. Today, only traces exist of that past glory, but it’s still very present in the identity of the place. People still find little flakes of gold in the rivers. Just to reassure you: we didn’t.

For example, here we were going to climb the “Golden Hill”.


And here are all the totems, freshly produced! The clay needed 2-3 days in a dry environment, before they could be put in the oven.

Working with a totem is a tricky thing. We don’t want to encourage “fetishes”, objects of worship. A totem is just a mirror, a gateway between places, an object that has a meaningful story to tell and reminds us of an experience, a lesson learned, or a direction to follow. A totem – just like a trainer, or a facilitator – is just a mean to an end. And when its task is over, it’s time to go and rest. The danger for trainers is to be trapped in a “guru” role or feeling. And people will be happy sometimes to put you in that role, because isn’t it reassuring? To have someone there always with the right answer for us. But, as Martin reminded us: “If you always follow your guru, all you will ever see on your journey is his back”.

We were working very hard to break the “guru” role and create a sense of community where everyone was a learner and a leader at the same time. And that is also what totems reminded us.

Our totem collection. Some look great, some don’t. Just like trainers. There is only one difference between a totem and a trainer. Trainers want to get paid.

Speaking of guides, we also went on a “Geological tour of the area”. Here we were meeting Peter, our guru guide for the day, ready for the exploration.

Our geologist came equipped with all the tools of the trade. A hammer, and lots of stories to tell.

As said, the area of Banská Štiavnica is indeed rich with natural beauty and historical landmarks. We were told the story of how the whole area used to be a volcano, “relatively not so long ago” (in geological terms), and this is why the land is still very fertile and rich veins of precious ores were found everywhere.


And here I was just trying the front camera of my new phone.

Which is very appropriate, speaking of the natural beauties of the territory.

Yes, we even went to explore an abandoned gold mine, and people were able to extract their own rock samples! There were clear traces of copper, zync and possibly even silver in the rocks we got. Not enough to have a real selling value, but still enough to say that we were “able to dig our own learning treasures” from the experience.

Seriously, they would never stop digging those rocks!

A friendly encounter on the way reminded us of another essential skill of a trainer.

To be creepy and keep an eye on everyone.

The course included so many memorable moments. I don’t want to make a boring list – and I don’t want to spoil all the fun to people who might join our programme in the future! – but a few examples were:

Building a map of the territory using natural elements;

Who needs LEGO, when you have got nature?

discovering strenghts and weaknesses of our personal communication styles, useful as persons and as trainers;

And now everybody say “Promoteeeeer”, please!

practicing presentation skills;

Here Asja and Zdenek are presenting some numbers, so it must have been something important.

practicing even more presentation skills using all sorts of garbage natural and improvised props;


experiencing nature using our senses;


and of course, much more. Here Martina is giving an input on coaching, before presenting Youthpass to the whole group.

Martina was not afraid to ask herself “WHY?”. For example, why did she put herself in this mess?

Challenging moments had to be there too, or it wouldn’t be “Special Effects”.

This was to be remembered as the “Circle of Authenticity”, or in short the “Yes / No circle”. It was part of a partner-finding process which included intuition and nature. For some people this had been the hardest part of the whole adventure.



For me? It was definitely this. The Intercultural Evening! We wanted to explore this concept, trying to understand if it’s possible to include this element in an international meeting, without falling victims of stereotypes and clichés. Did we manage?
No. Well, not completely. It was a nice, informal way to get to know each other a bit more, behind the sometimes stiff roles of participants and trainers, and to share some personal stories or interests. I, of course, talked about my passion for Star Wars.  And it was also nice to discover a bit more about Slovakia. But did we manage to avoid stereotypes? Not really. Turns out we even like (some of) them. And at least we talked about how they can be tricky.

The ladies in their traditional costumes were also selling delicious local cheese. I mean it: delicious.

The course included – of course! – a short introductory session to the Hero’s Journey. This was one of the challenges to pass, to get to the Reward.

“Thou shalt not pass!” I had to say it, sorry.

And this is a precious picture of people actually crossing it, trying to defeat their own personal fears and demons. Scary.

Can you spot the monster in the picture?

All good things must come to an end, and so was for our journey. We concluded with a powerful celebration to Natural elements, having on our last night an exceptional full moon that corresponded to the Buddhist celebration of Vesak, the birth of Gautama Buddha. Of course, it was all planned in advance. No, really!

We created a “Mandala of directions”, taking inspiration from the nature around us.

Having a bonfire under such a full moon was really spectacular. Hard to tell, what were the consequences on the whole course and on people’s experiences. Me, for example, I had very vivid dreams all week.


And we celebrated with fire the beginning and the end of our adventure together, sharing stories and inspirations in the teepee. Which really strenghtened our sense of community and belonging.


As promised, and just as the previous editions, the course was very intense. We promised ourselves at the beginning to take it a little bit easier but nothing, there was simply so much to do, say, share and experience that at the end, 8 days were barely enough.


Well… actually, they were enough. It has been a very significant experience, but boy wasn’t it time to go home!


Special Effects Slovakia has been a fantastic experience. A wonderful group of participants (all, except one), a lovely place with a big heart and many stories to tell, a committed and enthusiastic hosting team and very inspired training inputs made for a hell of a ride. One that will take some time to fully explore and digest.

I am particularly proud of this concept, that keeps improving and is definitely getting better and better with the growing of our experience. And who knows where will be the next? Some whisper “Caucasus”… some others “Spain”. Who knows? Would you like to step up to the challenge and host us? By all means get in touch and let us know. We will be delighted!

After all, this is how a story becomes a legend, no?


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