My left-field lesson - Igniting a sense of adventure

31st January 2014 at 00:00
A woodland lesson on how to build fires has practical and emotional benefits for students

When I was at primary school in the East End of Glasgow, two of my classmates were so keen on bonfires that they built one in school and managed to burn the building down.

It is because of outcomes like this that we have become wary of teaching young people how to build fires. But we are missing an opportunity to teach them a range of skills and to nurture their emotional well- being.

I regularly take groups of teenagers out into the woods, where we build fires as part of their personal and social development. This simple activity is a revelation for many of them: the majority have never struck a match before, so cautious has modern parenting become.

Obviously, a teacher can't take students into the woods and start fires willy-nilly. First, they must seek permission from the landowner. A local forest ranger may also be required to lead or support a group, depending on the teacher's qualifications.

The actual lesson is quite simple, although it needs plenty of preparation. As well as bringing with you the tools to start the fire and keep it going, you must also have the means of putting it out: a fire blanket and gallons of water.

One November, when I was being assessed for my leadership qualification in the Forest School outdoor woodland learning scheme, I forgot the water. I had to dangle over a freezing river, filling up a garden refuse sack with enough of it to extinguish my fires. I have never forgotten the water again.

But before you get to putting your fires out, you must first get them going. I put students into groups to collect different thicknesses of branches and twigs from the ground. This teaches them that we should not destroy nature by taking branches from trees and, on a practical note, green wood does not burn as well.

Where to place the fire is another lesson on the environment. We talk about what is underground, and also discuss how best to manage the fire so it will have the least possible impact on its surroundings.

The students then build a small "raft" with twigs the thickness of their fingers and another layer of wood across them. Fire-builders can decide whether they want a wigwam effect or more criss-crossing twigs on top of the base. Bigger branches are used to create a fire surround to stop it spreading. Small tree trunks can be dragged to create a seating area.

You also have to make sure that the fire lights, as there is nothing more disappointing to a group of teenagers who were expecting to be rewarded with toasted marshmallows than having to eat them raw. I use cotton wool dipped in Vaseline, sometimes to such an extent that when dry wood is hard to find in the autumn and winter, we really just have a fire of cotton balls and matchsticks, with a garnish of twigs.

Experimenting with fuel and oxygen is all very enlightening, but the point of the lessons is for classes to learn about teamwork, improve communication and reduce their aversion to risk. A successful fire should also create a sense of achievement different from that gained in the classroom.

And then there is the unquantifiable part: a fire in the woods on a dark winter afternoon is as mesmerising as a computer game, a shiny moving glow that needs just a little bit of attention to maintain. The group are left to sit and chat, and ruminate on a job well done. Rare indeed in schools.

Gordon Cairns is an English and Forest School teacher. He works in the autism unit at Govan High School in Glasgow, Scotland.

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