We can’t believe it’s already July! Between firing countless arrows, going fishing and catching some almost as tall as us, starting campfires together, picking wild red huckleberries, brushing a friendly goat, and so much more, June went by too fast! Check out our favorite Summer Camp photos in the gallery below.
Humans can be a healthy part of the natural world in ways that increase biodiversity for wildlife. While the proper practices of Bushcraft often caretake for the land, Leave No Trace is meant to lessen our impact, it is not meant to steward it.
Of course, varying levels of leaving no trace prove vital for certain areas that see dramatic human impact and recreation—such as many of our national and public parks. Yet, depending on the area, living with the land through seasonal rounds and thoughtful harvest can be beneficial for local flora and fauna.
A true Bushcraft practitioner does not act solely for their own survival. Every act of harvesting and crafting must also tend to the wild and more-than-human-world. For example, burning small diameter, wild harvested firewood (for camp and cooking fires) can decrease fuel loads and fuel ladders in specific areas. This in turn significantly decreases wildfire danger. Properly harvesting/coppicing willow shoots for basketry increases density for bird habitat. And harvesting invasive species for food, such as purple varnish clams, carp, and Japanese knotweed, reopens territory for native species.
When visiting areas where varying degrees of leave no trace is essential, such as heavily used recreation and public areas, awareness-based Bushcraft skills from tracking and bird language (the art of identifying animal movements based on the mapped sequence of multiple bird calls and alarms), are also beneficial in truly getting to know such places. Also, Bushcraft of Stewardship teaches us to travel through the land as softly as possible. You learn to walk in a way where you leave barely any tracks. Silence and deliberate movement is a strategy of survival and Bushcraft, especially minimizing the disturbance of songbirds to not interrupt their feeding and baseline routines. As you become less of a disruption to the immediate avian environment, you are seen as less of a foreign invader by all wildlife (they often adjust their movements based on bird alarms). As a result, you see more animals wherever you go.
Finally, there is even greater outdoor educational value with truly hands-on wilderness skills. When we are profoundly dependent on what is often viewed as “wild” for our shelter, water, fire, and food, this fosters communal, social, and even familial relationships with the more-than-human world. Such humbling connections can prove difficult to replicate when we only perceive nature as a recreational luxury and privilege. Putting nature ONLY in parks is what possibly leads to the blithe social indifference towards the wilderness, an attitude so pervasive in the modern world where every convenience can be ordered online.
Through our everyday teaching at Trackers Earth, while educating thousands of children and adults each year, we observe the stewardship and educational value of Bushcraft. Bringing what is wild back into our everyday lives helps us remember the following: we must preserve the wilderness we have left, but we also must make what has once been domesticated, wild once again.
As a primitive skills instructor, I spend a lot of time around fire. I like to think I have a special relationship with fire. I know for a fact I have spent more time in front of fires than in front of a television. Many times I have watched people try, yet fail, to build an adequate fire. In my opinion, building, lighting, and maintaining a fire should be taught in every elementary school. Like math.
Fire is a necessity for wilderness survival and primitive living. Yet of all the outdoor skills, building a proper fire structure is one of the most overlooked. It doesn’t matter how many techniques you learn for making fire–whether you’re using bow-drill, flint and steel, fire piston or a Bic lighter–if you don’t have a proper fire structure to ignite, you will probably end up cold, wet, and miserable.
Fire needs three things to exist: heat, oxygen, and fuel. If you remove any of these from the equation, fire will cease. A fire that is burning properly will be warm, provide good light, and be nearly smokeless.
In fire building, material selection is everything. As with any primitive skill, if you take the time to select ideal materials you will be rewarded by saving energy during the crafting process.
Here are a few tips on gathering wood:
Dry wood is key. Whenever possible, I gather wood that is not on the ground. When wood lays on the ground it absorbs moisture and is harder to get burning. I choose dead branches off live trees or dead saplings, and I also collect branches that have fallen off trees and gotten hung up in the forest understory. Remember to keep it dead and dry.
You don’t just want to gather wood willy-nilly, however. There is a method to collecting that trumps all others.
Fire ring. If you have a fire ring available, use it. If not, you need to construct a fire ring to contain your fire. A ring of large rocks will do the trick. If rocks aren’t available and local laws allow, dig a small depression in the ground about two feet wide and six inches deep. Build the fire in the depression to keep it contained.
Clear the space. It’s very important to clear away any and all debris near your fire ring that your fire might catch on for about 10 feet around. Our goal is to make a small fire, not burn the woods down! There’s an ancient saying: ”You can build a man a fire and he will be warm for a little while, or you can light a man on fire and he will be warm for the rest of his life!”
Teepee Structure. One of the most basic and functional ways to start your fire is to build a teepee structure. In this shape, each layer of the fire is responsible for igniting the layer on top of it. When built well, it will even shed water! If the outer layer gets rained on, it will protect and keep dry the core of the structure.
Personally, I try and keep my fires as small as possible. Smaller fires are easier to manage and eat less wood.
Now that you know the nuts and bolts of building a proper fire structure, it’s time to put it into practice. Like any new skill, it is important that you practice, and a great way to practice is the “one-match fire challenge”. The challenge is exactly what it sounds like: build a fire structure that you can light with one match. If you’ve done everything right, from tinder collection all the way through construction of the fire structure, you should have no problem getting it to light!
You will get the most dynamic practice by building and lighting fires in every season and all weather conditions.
Want to give yourself an even bigger challenge? Gather, construct, build, and light a fire in 5 minutes or less.
This is one of those skills that can truly save your life one day. Practice it, perfect it and pass it on.
Recently I observed a group of outdoor educators discussing “play-based” and “child-centered” learning. I noticed an almost dogmatic and singular interpretation of how these concepts relate to forest schools—even how we parents should raise our kids.
For those not familiar with these terms, they can mean many things. Frequently, play-based learning refers to free play and exploration, especially in the outdoors. Child-centered learning is more vague, ranging from curriculum-based on each student’s individual needs and interests to children wholly choosing the subject and scope of their learning.
I’ll begin by affirming that play is absolutely essential to learning (and life) and working with students beyond a standardized educational model should be the baseline. Yet both concepts of play-based and child-centered learning are not often well integrated into the whole picture of how children learn to value nature or become adults who contribute to their community and the Earth.
The option to always (and only) play through life, even as a child, is a contemporary luxury and a toxic privilege that leads to self-centered adults. Unfortunately, parents or educators can often feel driven to make everything entertaining through “play”. This fearful obsession is fueled by modern culture’s inability to provide work infused with joy or play aligned with responsibility.
In order to grow into competent, healthy humans, children need to see adults “adulting” well. Relative to other great apes such as gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans, we humans possess an incredible capacity for intersubjectivity—the ability to quickly theorize what others are thinking based on information such as body language, expression, and more. Intersubjectivity is how humans evolved into master trackers: able to predict the whereabouts of their quarry with a mix of simple clues, knowing their landscape, and “thinking” like the animal they are hunting. It is also why children are so adept at learning by imitation, especially from their elders.
In the ancestral past we all share, children had time to explore the land where they lived. Certainly, they played, but they also engaged in vital responsibilities during such explorations: harvesting and cracking nuts, foraging tidal pools, gathering wood for the fire. When they wandered further from the family hearth or village proper, they might be relied upon to bring back berries, fish, or small game. Their caregivers would provide them with the physical tools and materials needed to carry out these expected tasks: baskets, knives, or hunting weapons. Or these elders would show them how to craft their own, sometimes through direct instruction and storytelling, sometimes through unguided imitation and trial and error. As children grew, their responsibilities became more complex (and more interesting), and ever more essential to their family or village.
They were not doted on by adults pandering to every precocious question. Rather, practicality, mindfulness, and resourcefulness were expectations as they walked with their parents, tending to the day-to-day needs of their family and the land they were a part of. With familial and communal survival directly at stake, there was no hard and fast rule for learning the “how-to” of a task. It was whatever mixture of methods reliably guided the child to be truly helpful.
This “work” of survival did not lessen how much a child intrinsically valued nature (the more-than-human-world). Instead, this “work” of livelihood provided a daily reminder of their dependency on and connection to the Earth—going far beyond what distilled recreation and play can ever hope to reach.
Explorations of our ancestral past and evolutionary assets can offer profound implications for the in vogue concepts of play-based and child-centered learning as applied to outdoor education and forest schools. A healthier and more balanced approach to child development should encompass the well-being of the community (village) and the more-than-human-world, even shifting the notion of child-centered to a multi-generational scope. Meanwhile, our play can involve meaningful work that reinforces and provides for these greater ecological and communal connections.
When we venture into the out-of-doors, give our children duties and responsibilities with meaning. Expand upon those opportunities with sage advice and, even more important, sage role-modeling. Then, with access to these cultural tools, physical tools, and the wilder world, let them play and explore. Responsibility to community informs their play. In turn, play informs their responsibility to community. Treat this as a never-ending cycle and you will discover the true school of the forest.
Interested in learning the skills of a Forest School Teacher?
Dress your kids for success to have fun this winter! Keeping kids comfortable outdoors in all weather helps them appreciate nature and stay active. We put together a handy video and infographic on how to layer to stay warm and dry in cold weather.
In this video, the Trackers Gear Fairy teaches parents and kids about essential winter clothing.
Use this infographic to double check all your layers!
Summer provides plenty of time for kids and families to get outside. Yet the school year often finds our kids indoors, walking down halls and learning in classrooms. Their focus changes from the much wider and diverse world of Nature, to a representation of the world on computer screens, in books and from a teacher’s curriculum. At most, they might find themselves taking a spherical object from one scoring place to another scoring place—occasionally in a grassy field. So how can we parents help our kids connect with Nature and their wilder selves? Here are…
#1 Pitch a Tent
Every kid loves sleeping in the backyard. It’s adventure with healthy safety nets. If it looks like a clear night, pitch a tent (or better yet, go tentless) to camp through the night. If the weather (or memories of Zombie Camp) gets too intense, they can come inside. Over time your children will begin to test themselves in more challenging weather. Who knows, someday you might be able to free up their room for your collection of Whedonverse memorabilia. Your backyard doesn’t have to be big—kids can even sleep on the back porch.
#2 Build a Yort (that’s a Yard-Fort)
Start by learning all the ways to set up a rain tarp, which also teaches useful knots. You can also move onto more complex structures such as a debris shelter (which they learn about at Trackers). Finally, if you’re really inspired, you can do something like this guy.
#3 Make a Creature Map
Help your kids understand, your family is not the only one living in and around your home. From spiders to squirrels, many creatures share your territory. One of the best places to start this exploration process is with birds. Figuring out where that song sparrow lives takes it from being “a little brown bird”, to a being a familiar individual living alongside you. Try to identify each bird in and around your backyard. See if you can map out the current limits of its movements—a territory that might change with the seasons. Do the same with spiders both inside and outside the house. The goal is for your child to go into the backyard and ask, “What’s Bob the Robin up to today? Has he changed where he’s feeding?”
#4 Plant a Wilder Garden
Some of us have gardens, some don’t. But the easiest way to start one is by growing “weeds”. Many wild plants are super hardy and mighty tasty. Letting the dandelions grow offers edible greens, roots and flowers. A patch of stinging nettle will provide many a tasty stir fry as well as fiber for rope. Just remember, don’t spray pesticides or herbicides.
#5 Hoard Sticks + Knives
Don’t toss that yard debris! In fact, ask your neighbors for their “junky sticks”. Then give them to your kids. They need plenty of wood and limbs to saw and carve while making all manner of projects: Spoons, spirals and more. Tell them whittling is only allowed outside, while hanging out with Bob the Robin. You can even give them this how-to book that teaches carving to kids.
Bonus Make a Campfire
You will need something to do with all those wood shavings and extra sticks. Some areas allow campfire pits (BBQ areas) in the backyard. There are burn bans for seasons, counties, neighborhoods and more. Respect them. Ask your local fire department. Then go about roasting marshmallows, singing songs, and telling ghost stories (because you already binge watched Stranger Things).
We hope you enjoyed some clever alternatives to orb-based recreational outdoor time*. Of course, since Nature is so epically diverse, the possibilities are only limited by our own imaginations and how much we choose to connect to and respect the wild.
*I took my 5 year old son to his first soccer game the other day.