Yes, that’s an inflammatory statement and intentionally so. I have been feeling very aggrieved lately about my generations parenting style and how we are perpetuating a “risk free”, indoor, perfected lifestyle.
To prevent this turning into a rant, let me explain the numerous benefits to playing in the forest and making camp-fires. For the record, this is my job – I am an occupational therapist, which means I understand the nature of activities, why they have health giving properties and how we can use meaningful activities to their greatest effect. We work with everyone including adults who have had a stroke, people struggling with depression or children who have developmental or behavioural problems.
Just to get this all in into perspective, as a society we are currently raising the most overweight and depressed generation of children there has ever been. I could provide you with the statistics, but I imagine you know this to be true. I imagine you all know someone whose child has a mental health problem, attentional problems or is struggling to cope at school or home.
Much of this is due to the massive changes in activity patterns in recent times, which have taken us further and further away from our natural ways as human beings. We have been around for about two hundred thousand years and for most of that time we lived an agrarian lifestyle, living outdoors, hunting and gathering, sitting round the fire to socialise, cook and keep warm.
And herein lies the first big clue – for thousands of years human beings have sat round the fire together, chatting about the weather, figuring out how to get the pigs to mate or cooking said pig. This is what humans do.
Outside of this evolutionary explanation, if we analyse the activity of fire making, we can see why its essential that kids return to their roots, rub sticks and sit together.
This is the science of camp fire making…
Physical: we gather wood, bending, stretching and carrying. We might climb trees, make a rope swing or play a game. Our lungs work harder as we use our bodies – our heart beats as we run and climb.
Sensory: our sensory system wakes up. We hear the wind in the tress, our friends laughing, the fire crackling, camp fire songs filling the air. Our visual system is alert, scanning for potential logs to burn, noticing the changing light, alert to the emerging flames or the embers dying down. We feel the texture of the wood as we chop it and the warmth of the fire as it burns. The forest emits all sorts of smells: leaves, moss, wood, mud and of course, wood smoke and perhaps the smell of a little accelerant…
Our taste buds get a look in too. Perhaps we have brought some snacks for day out and of course camp fire food always tastes great, doesn’t it, even if a little charred round the edges. Who can forget the taste of a toasted marshmallow!
Our sensory system works best when it has something to work on. An enriched environment and activity such as a camp fire, provides our human bodies lots of sensory input and multiple opportunities to integrate and modulate itself. Without activities like this, our minds and bodies struggle to be well.
Cognitive: This about how our brain works – problem solving, memory, planning, concentration etc. You can see where we are going with this! There can be lots of planning involved beforehand – contacting friends, gathering supplies, remembering things to take, meeting up, navigating to the forest and that’s all beforehand! Then there’s the coordinating of people to find firewood, choosing a good place to build it, delegating of tasks to others. Concentration and attention naturally kick in due to the demands of the task at hand. Yes, our cognitive system has much to do.
Affective: this is about our mood, our mental state. When I ask people how they feel when they build fires or sit around them with friends, few remember a bad experience. They say things like “warm, comforting and cosy” or “story-telling, sharing, passing down, the thrill of simplicity and ‘basics’, the psychological clarity it can afford away from everyday life, the chance to reconnect…” People tend to recall some of the best memories of their childhood and the small things like a freak downpour or a frosty evening, pale into insignificance against the backdrop of glowing embers.
Social: Outside of all the lush sensory experiences, most people remember the social benefits of being by the camp fire. We are social beings, wired for connection – we need hugs, laughs and tears, in real-time, not online.
And there’s the other stuff…
We sleep better after all that outdoors air and exercise.
We have stories to tell “remember the time the marshmallow fell down Louise’s top!”
We don’t have to worry about how we look, whether we have designer trainers, the lastest phone or whether our hair is straight…
Sadly, we seem obsessed with eliminating every risk in our lives. We insure ourselves against everything, spend hours planning our lives to ensure success and avoid disappointment at all cost. As parents we find every conceivable way to protect our children, control their activities and give them everything they want. It’s as if we are trying to make sure they escape their basic humanity – pain, injury, loss and death.
The thing is, this results in us denying our basic humanity too – our opportunities for joy, connection and love – our bodies need for the outdoors and activity which integrates our senses.
Redressing this, encouraging our kids to go to the woods and build fires, involves risk: risking a small burn, risking some muddy jeans, risking being home late for dinner.
But the risks of not, are so much greater.
Go collect wood, build a fire.