The most tangible of all visible mysteries – fire. ~Leigh Hunt
On the last forest day of our first year in the woods our main task was deconstruction. We needed to pull down the structures we had built together so that the lashing did not damage the living trees the branch beams spanned. We had a handful of eager adults and the project was quickly finished. Lengths of rope were coiled and stacked, and piles of limbs teetered around the perimeter of our space. In some ways this is an anticlimactic way to end our time as a group in the woods, but it is necessary and instructive work. We were clearing the way for next year’s group of five year olds to build their own woods world, and caring for the trees that had supported our shelter and latrine all year.
Before we put out our last fire, we gathered a final time. On this occasion we broke one of our fire rules, and allowed students to toss one stick on the fire. Before tossing the stick each child was to thank the forest for something. While much of the day was spent taking apart, we had been coming all year, and leaving for a last time was an appropriate moment for constructing something: an understanding of what we’d received from our visits.
Thank you, forest, for all the sticks you gave me to build a fort. Thank you, forest, for letting us visit. Thank you, forest, for keeping us warm. Thank you, forest, for the green plants. Thank you, forest, for letting us come here. Thank you, forest, for letting me have sticks and not giving me poison ivy. Thank you, forest, for keeping us safe.
With each thank you the student tossed his stick onto the fire, and the fire consumed the wood, taking the thank you throughout the forest in drifting tendrils of smoke.
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In our Forest Kindergarten day each week, fire is at the center of our space. We have an established fire pit (suggestions on how to build one follow) and it is the first assignment of students to gather kindling, and of adults to build the fire. We cook over the fire each forest day, and mark the end of our time in the woods each afternoon with billowing steam as we douse the coals.
We built our fire pit initially with help from a parent volunteer. He enthusiastically, and in a downpour, dug a very deep pit far below the organic material floor of the woods. The idea is to get to “mineral earth,” material which will not burn. Leaf litter and roots in the topsoil can catch fire, smolder underground for days, sometimes emerging much later to ignite the forest. Once the deep pit was dug we lined it with stone. Better would be to fill the pit with sand or gravel, making it fully a foot larger all around than the fire ring. We encircled the pit with rocks the children had carried up from the stream-bed on the way to our home-base site. We did this in a ceremony during which each child passed the rocks around the circle and touched each one before it was laid around the pit. Four logs lay in a square a foot or so back from the ring, creating a visual barrier that the students were not to cross. There is an opening on one side of the square where, at our fire, only adults add fuel.
During our first year in the woods we experienced some difficulty in starting our fires. We were neglecting the third ingredient after fuel and ignition: oxygen. The fire pit was so deep that the flames had difficulty pulling enough air to really get going. As the ashes piled up we noticed the fire became easier and easier to start and maintain. So, a lesson to share, dig your pit deep for safety, but then add sand or rock to raise the base of the pit back towards ground level.
After building your pit, you’ll want to consider what rules you need for the fire. Perhaps you need none. I recently visited a public school kindergarten in New Hampshire where students are allowed to walk right up to the fire, add fuel to it, as well as cook their own food (on the day I visited, hot dogs). Occasionally an adult would limit a student’s exuberant tossing of kindling, but this was on a case by case basis, and the responsibility and personal safety I observed on the children’s part was great, especially in the way it seemed to be second-nature to them. This class had just started extended visits to the forest, with fires in the last month of their school year.
Perhaps it is because we start fires with our students in September, just as we are building routines and behavior expectations, that we have more limitations on our students’ engagement of the fire. In our setting for the last two years the rules have been that students do not cross the logs around the pit, keeping them at least a foot away from the edge of the fire, and students may not add fuel (or trash) to the fire. We require respect of these rules pretty strictly…although we do have occasional special days or tasks, when we allow students to roast marshmallows, or use a bellows, or toss in a stick.
Finally one last essential piece of logistics; check with your local fire department. Our school has a standing campfire permit on file with the department, and I call on the mornings we plan to have the fire to check with the fireman on duty. Most days I get the go ahead, and he just asks that I call when the fire is extinguished. Occasionally there is a ban on all fires due to extended dry weather or high winds. We always comply, of course. We’ve also had a representative from the fire department come to our pit to check it out. While there is always the risk that you are prohibited from burning in your space, when you do so with the explicit approval of the fire department, not only are you on the right side of the law, you have demonstrated to your students how to be safe and responsible. We’ve even had our quarterly fire-safety visit around the fire pit.
I would certainly argue that more experience with fire leads to more responsible and safe children. This is a great example of the benefits outweighing the risk. Gathering around the fire meets a need in the children to be witness to a miracle of sorts, to learn to be near something wild and potentially harmful, but to become comfortable in proximity to such a thing. The fire creates meaningful tasks for the children to engage in, digging the pit, gathering wood, hauling water, foraging for birch bark, and making space for each other around the flames. It also lets us cook together, another endeavor young children are eager to master. It throws a bit of warmth, but more than that it radiates comfort and beckons for children to pause, listen, watch and wonder. And appreciate the gifts of nature.
The fire is the main comfort of the camp, whether in summer or winter, and is about as ample at one season as at another. It is as well for cheerfulness as for warmth and dryness. ~Henry David Thoreau