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Thursday, 7 July 2016

Why It's OK to be bad at Bushcraft

Practising bushcraft can be wonderfully empowering for children and having a chance to use 'grown up' tools and make fires like a 'grownup' can give children a real sense of achievement and build confidence.  But we shouldn't expect children to be able to replicate the skills that we try and teach them straight away.

Friction fire, fine carving, tanning skins and trapping are all part of Bushcraft but children need to start somewhere and perhaps just playing with saw dust is a good place to start. 

Just taking part in bushcraft activities will be beneficial, and developmental and although I have
said in the past that bushcraft can be more than just fun, for children it doesn't have to be. It would be very easy to scare a child off bushcraft if we are too insistent that they produce results, work hard and do things the 'right way'. 

I have had cause for disappointment a few times of over the last few years by some opinions I've heard, particularly in a survey I carried out a while ago, that described programmes of nature engagement, such as Forest Schools, as 'namby pamby'. Perhaps because it's not 'hard core' enough, or because the skills taught aren't advanced enough, but where do you start with children?

A Lapp family, Norway, 1890s
A Sami Family in Norway in 1900; (public domain).
Even though the children pictured here would have had very different experiences from your average child in the UK today, even these children would not have been expected to carry out the tasks that adults performed. Like the Huron (Wyandot) mocasins pictured below, children wouldnt be expected to produce work like this strait away although they might begin to learn young and have been able to to play at these skills from an early age. 
Huron moccasins, c. 1880 - Bata Shoe Museum - DSC00641
By Daderot (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

 We need to understand that children can't do everything we adults can do and adjust our expectations and approach to teaching them accordingly. Even real hunter gatherer societies and First Nation peoples, who still practice primitive or traditional skills have to start somewhere with their children and that isn't by expecting them to bring down large or dangerous game before they are able, or expecting them produce exquisite craft items before they have the strength, skill or knowledge.

Think of the bushmen whose children start making bows at a very young age or the Yanomamo Indians of South America whose children make tiny bows with sharpened slivers of bamboo as 
arrows. They are not expected to feed the entire village, they are expected to play and learn, perhaps 
quicker than in a westernised society, but they are not expected to function as an adult straight away.

Yanomami Woman & Child

Yanomami Woman & Child

By Cmacauley [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

We need to be careful that we are teaching our children bushcraft and allowing them to experience nature and giving them chances to play at bushcraft and develop a healthy relationship with the natural environment. We should not be training them for an impending apocalypse, attack by zombies or SAS selection. 

I'm not criticising those whose practice of bushcraft has a 'survival' orientation at all what I'm suggesting is that when dealing with young children we should be 'playing' bushcraft rather than 'training' bushcraft, and children don't have to be good at bushcraft to be able to play at it.

Bushcraft doesn't just have to be about the acquisition of skills and the ability to survival in any situation, the Scandinavian philosophy of 'Friluftsliv' typifies this: While most Scandinavians have a much closer relationship with the outdoors than we do in the UK and are probably as a result of this much more practised in the skills of outdoor living than most people in the UK, the idea of the ‘Friluftsliv’ culture and philosophy is not one of technical skill, expertise or mastery, but one of a relationship with nature and positive experiences in natural environments. This is what we can provide for our children through bushcraft.

I feel particularly strongly about this at the moment because I think I have put my son Michael off bushcraft a bit recently by making it too much about getting things done rather than having fun. I work a lot out of doors and a lot of my opportunities to practice bushcraft with the children have been when they accompany me to Riddy Wood while I get some coppicing done, mill ash planks, burn charcoal, split firewood or build outdoor classrooms. So Michael, who is six, has spent a lot of time stacking, bagging and sorting firewood, making dead wood habitat piles and feeding the fire. This isn't necessarily a bad thing but when we spoke about going to the woods during half term the other day he wasn't as keen as he normally would be and said he didn’t want to stack wood, he wanted to play. So in a few weeks we are off to the woods together to build a 'yoda hut' and play. 

Bushcraft isn't all about skills it's about playing in the woods, being bad at things and getting better, 
learning and enjoying nature, and every child should have a chance at it.


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