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bushcraft and mindfulness tools

Mindfulness & Bushcraft: Perfect Partners

Want to be healthier and happier? I’d say you need more wildness in your life! We, as a species, need to rewild ourselves. Practising bushcraft and taking time out for ourselves in nature can be our vehicle to honouring our ancient, wild selves. You may have seen plenty of stories doing the rounds about landowners who are letting wildlife do it’s thing as farms, forestry plantations and gardens are allowed to go back to nature. Whether it’s called rewilding, natural regeneration or non-intervention, the aim is usually the same; to benefit wildlife by increasing biodiversity. The results in many of these projects have seen a huge increase in the variety of animal and plant life, as well as the joy and happiness that comes to those who get to watch wildlife thriving around them. Species of insects and wildflowers have exploded and following them, all the birds and mammals that come with them. All because humans have withdrawn their input. Let’s take a step back and understand just what rewilding is…

“Rewilding is a progressive approach to conservation. It’s about letting nature take care of itself, enabling natural processes to shape land and sea, repair damaged ecosystems and restore degraded landscapes. Through rewilding, wildlife’s natural rhythms create wilder, more biodiverse habitats.” Rewidling Europe

So, can we also apply this approach to how we live our own lives? Absolutely!

Rewilding Your Body

The health benefits of being outdoors is one topic I find fascinating. As well as being the co-owner of a Forest School & Bushcraft company, I also work in mental health as a counsellor. In my work I have always been interested in the idea of our inner hunter-gatherer. Studies have shown that our brains are still wired up to a live in the world of our ancestors where our priorities were to hunt and gather for food, build shelter, connect with our families and communities and use plants to heal ourselves. Occasionally we’d experience the stress response to run away from danger or fight to protect ourselves from harm. In the world of the hunter-gatherer these stressful instances would have normally been short lived and with the immediate danger passed we’d soon return to the safety of our tribe, an ongoing cycle of relaxation to stress to relaxation, completed and no harm done. Fast forward to today however, and our modern, fast-paced lifestyles mean we spend much of our lives in this stress state. Cortisol (your body’s main stress hormone) is racing through our systems steadily and rarely do we get much of a break from this to reconnect with our tribe and loved ones and complete the cycle, allowing the brain to get it’s much needed rest.

Society has changed in the blink of an evolutionary eye, and our brain wiring has nowhere near caught up yet. It’s still happier picking berries, whittling spoons and bonding with each other whilst sat round the campfire under the canopy of the trees and stars.

Research by Mark Berman at the University of Chicago says that if you add 10 trees to any given urban block, residents report a 1% increase in wellness, if you wanted to give the same effect using money for increasing happiness you’d have to pay each household $10,000 or make the residents 7 years younger. Trees, nature, wildness, they all increase our happiness and well-being. So, why don’t we choose to spend more time immersed in nature if it’s so good for us?

fermented wild greens kimchiI’ve recently discovered the process of fermenting wild greens. This is an ancient technique to preserve foods and to increase the nutritional value which greatly benefits the overall health of the body. This further led me to develop my understanding of how the gut plays a major role in our mental health too. It was fascinating to discover that 90% of serotonin is produced in the gut, it’s like the body’s second brain. Eating fermented food is incredibly good for us and up until very recently in western history we have been preserving food in this way.

The average body contains around 39 trillion microbes & bacteria in the intestines. Our lack of exposure to dirt and animals along with the cleaning and disinfecting of our crops and environment with chemicals, has reduced the biodiversity in our guts, and like the health of the earth, our own overall health has declined as a result. We are our own ecosystems, and some scientists are suggesting we even need to rewild our intestines with bacteria from indigenous people – its sounds crazy but it’s already happening. Want to know more about this subject? Check out  Mary Beth Nawor’s Ted Talk on YouTube.

Many of us already know how to rewild our back gardens, letting nature take over or by planting native plants and bee-friendly flowers. We can also increase the ‘wildness’ of our gut by eating healthy, fermented and ‘dirty’ wild food, but how do we rewild our spirit, our emotional, cognitive and social selves?

I believe that positive mental and physical health can be achieved through the art of Bushcraft and being mindful in nature. Here we are doing two very simple things; we are honouring our inner hunter-gatherer and living in the present moment. We are also surrounding ourselves amongst trees in a beautiful forest. Those trees have been scientifically proven to have their own natural healing powers, but that’s a story for another time.

bushcraft and mindfulness in north wales

Bushcraft – Just What the Doctor Ordered

Our good friend Nick Hulley is a Bushcraft Instructor based in Staffordshire who brings Mindfulness into the very core of his life. When hosting a woodland skills session, mindfulness informs how he moves about the woods, how he uses all his senses to feel the forest, how the trees nourish him, how he pauses and calmly absorbs all about him: likewise for his learners on the courses he delivers for them. Let’s let Nick explain in his own words…

“After my ‘safety-rounds’ along the rides, the trails and the woodland fringes; I ease into the fire circle glade. I lower my rucksack, remove the kindling from home along with the tinder, heft my axe into a couple of logs, light the fire and boil the kettle – wood smoke, tea, crackling billets, fresh cut logs, the fire light flicker, the outer focus stillness and yet the inner calmness continues to enrich my wellbeing. I ground myself, cross-legged and centred. The following fifteen minutes of the breath, the inner sight, the acknowledgement and the continued return to the breath sets me up for the day: this marriage works, forest environments, Bushcraft and Mindfulness: even if it is just a short centre and pause whilst doing.”

Nick will be one of the four experienced tutors hosting our

Woodland Mindfulness & Bushcraft Weekend in North Wales this September. Nick continues…

“It is wonderful to now be aware that for all these years, working as I do in a forest setting, that research has been going on with the intent to establish positive links between woodlands & improved health. Shinrin-yoku (forest bathing in Japan) and its beneficial outcomes is one of the many researched avenues involving forested settings; which provide a life enhancing backdrop to the union of Bushcraft activities and primitive skills learning complimented by Mindfulness, with its slowed, peaceful and thoughtful considerations of the natural world and our impact on it.”

Practising Bushcraft doesn’t have to mean taking on extreme survival skills, pushing yourself to the edge of your endurance or eating up a dish of witchetty grubs, ala Bear Grylls. For me, Bushcraft skills are about slowing down, tuning into nature, connecting with our ancient past and being present in our natural environment. Through Bushcraft skills such as tracking, carving, nature awareness and plant identification we can become extremely mindful and train our brain to leave the fast-paced, modern world behind even if just for a few hours. Bushcraft and Mindfulness are the perfect partners to leading a healthier, happier lifestyle, enriched by nature, sharing time with like minds and learning some very old, new skills.

by Lea Kendall (Counsellor, Mindfulness in the Woods Practitioner and Outdoor Activity Leader)

adults learn fire lighting skills in north walesWoodland Classroom are hosting a whole weekend of Woodland Mindfulness & Bushcraft at the National Trust’s Chirk Castle estate in North Wales this September. You can give some time to your inner hunter-gatherer for a weekend of mindfulness in the woods accompanied by a range of bushcraft activities aimed at focusing the mind and increasing awareness & appreciation of the natural world.  If you’d like to know more about this event, just follow THIS LINK.

“In wildness is the salvation of the world” Henry David Thorough

forest school and outdoor education in wrexham, north wales

WOODLAND CLASSROOM LANDS IN WREXHAM!

We have some VERY exciting news! We are finally able to announce that we’ve gone into partnership with the National Trust at Erddig Hall & Gardens and Chirk Castle, both in the county of Wrexham. What this means is that James and Lea are moving Woodland Classroom up to Wrexham and from September we will be able to bring all our existing popular outdoor clubs, as well as some new ones, to children in the area and offer our outdoor education services to audiences in North Wales, Cheshire, Shropshire, Merseyside and beyond.

James explained his connection with the area; “I’m originally from this neck of the woods where I worked a lot with environmental organisations in Cheshire and North East Wales, so this feels like coming home and I’m really excited about this opportunity we have with the National Trust who have made us very welcome and have been totally onboard with all the ideas we have to offer our activities in the area.”

Our new base of operations will be Felin Puleston Outdoor Centre, which lies on the edge of the Erddig estate on the doorstep of Wrexham town. It’s a great location for locals to be able to access it easily and is currently also the home of the National Trust’s GAP (Green Academies Project) funded by the Lottery which has seen lots of new energy and restoration work go into Felin Puleston with a host of improvements to the venue which makes it perfect for visiting groups who want to learn more about nature.

felin puleston outdoor centre

Our new home at Felin Puleston, Wrexham. Kids building dens with us. The vegetable garden where kids can learn how to grow their own.

We feel incredibly lucky to have full access to this tailor-made venue. The Outdoor Centre includes an allotment for growing vegetables, a wildlife garden, orchard, den building area, indoor function room and kitchen for craft workshops and classroom sessions, and of course the beautiful 1,200 acre Erddig estate which lies on the other side of the gate for the children and groups to explore.

forest school in wrexham

Our Little rangers parent & toddler group. The entrance to Forest Wood at Erddig. Boys learning fire-lighting skills at our sessions.

We also have the River Clywedog on our doorstep along with a wildlife pond both home to a wealth of water life which means that activities like pond and river dipping are going to be very much on the menu.

Susan Jones is the Volunteer & Community Involvement Manager at Erddig;

“We are delighted to be working in partnership with Woodland Classroom.  Providing enjoyable and meaningful experiences in the outdoors helps us to connect with nature, improve our mental and physical wellbeing and value the world around us so we can continue to care for special places like Chirk Castle and Erddig, forever for everyone.”

outdoor activities for children erddig wrexham

Erddig Hall & Gardens. This stunning National Trust property sits at the doorstep of Wrexham town.

In addition to making the most of the Outdoor Centre, we’re going to be able to welcome groups of all ages to Forest Wood, a beautiful forest school site based in the heart of Erddig’s ancient woodland. Think tall trees, wild garlic and woodland wildflowers. It’s a fantastic spot for woodland learning.

About Woodland Classroom

wildcraft adventureSo, who are we? Well… James and Lea have been running Woodland Classroom in Lampeter, Ceredigion since 2014 where they have hosted schools, organisations, adult learners, after-school clubs and kids birthday parties with a range of outdoor activities including; bushcraft, forest school, traditional woodland crafts, mindfulness and CPD training. All of this and more will now be offered at our new home.

They are also the creative minds behind the hugely popular Wildcraft Adventure™ which takes kids’ favourite video games like Minecraft and transforms them into outdoor adventures that engage children in a host of physical challenges and bushcraft skills which score them point along the way, just like a real video game. There’s even a monster to run away from! It’s been so popular that outdoor activity leaders across the world are nor running the game; from California to Scotland, from New Zealand to Canada. James and lea are planning many more Wildcraft Adventures at their new Wrexham home for the near future.

Woodland Classroom are members of the Institute for Outdoor Learning and Forest School Wales.

james kendall - profile picJames Kendall

James is a qualified Forest School Leader, Social Forester and experienced Woodland Skills Tutor. He has worked widely with children, young people and adults, leading on a variety of outdoor education and environmental projects. He has worked for several well-known environmental organisations and was also Project Manager for Long Wood Community Woodland, the largest community owned woodland in Wales, overseeing management of 300 acres of forest. He enjoys working with schools and communities to raise awareness of the environment, where his enthusiasm for spreading the message of learning through nature comes through. Lastly, but not least, he is currently undertaking a 2 year long course to become a bushcraft skills activity leader with the Bushcraft Competency Certificate scheme run through the Institute for Outdoor Learning.

“As a child, my Mum would bring me and my sister to Erddig and Chirk Castle where our imaginations could run wild with all sorts of play. I never thought I’d get the opportunity to actually work here and it seems fitting that I’ll now be able to offer outdoor adventures and learning for kids coming to these National Trust properties.”

lea kendall - counsellor and life coachLea Kendall

Lea has years of experience working with children and young people, including 4 years working in a primary school as a Learning Mentor focusing on the social and emotional aspects of learning and working one to one with vulnerable children and challenging behaviour. She shares her time leading activities for Woodland Classroom with my work as a qualified integrative Counsellor. Lea is also a qualified practitioner of Mindfulness in woodland settings.

“I am a firm believer in the power of nature to be therapeutic for everyone. I believe that play for all ages should be a large part of our lives. My training as a Counsellor worked toward my long-term goal to incorporate nature and play therapy into our future services. I am passionate about finding ways to increase the self-esteem of people and encouraging motivation through positive experience, shared enthusiasm and a nurturing environment.”

Lea is now offering the first of her planned nature therapy courses with two Mindfulness events for adult learners scheduled for this autumn. See our events page to find out more.

We Can Also Travel To You

Not every group who wants our services has been able to travel to us though, and for some schools such travel can be a costly or complicated business, so we’ve always offered the option for us to come to your school or venue and we have hosted many Forest School and bushcraft sessiosn on school grounds, at events, or anywhere that wants us really. Want to know more? Just get in touch.

outdoor kids club in wrexham, north wales, forest school

About our Outdoor Kids Clubs

Little Rangers is a weekly woodland parent and toddler group for children aged up to 5 years which follows the Forest School approach of child-led play and outdoor activities in a welcoming natural space. Activities are based around our central campfire and tots can get stuck into the mud kitchen, build a den, explore the wood or do some campfire cooking. Sessions are also a chance for like-minded parents to meet and share time together whilst their children are at play.

Young Rangers is our weekly after-school club for primary school aged children from 6 – 11 years. Parents drop their kids off with James and Lea where children will get the chance to play off steam after a day in school and take part in guided activities including bushcraft, outdoor games, crafts and campfire cooking.

Pathfinders is brand new to Woodland Classroom, a regular group for Home Educated children and their families. It’s something we’ve been wanting to offer for a long time, and we’ve been asked my Home Ed parents time and again if we could do this. Our move to Wrexham has offered the perfect opportunity for it to start. Sessions will be fortnightly and children from 0-16 will be able to join either our Forest School group where they can engage in child-led play and outdoor activities, or they can join our structured learning sessions where they will get quality tuition from James or Lea in environmental education, bushcraft and traditional woodland craft skills.

We’re hosting a taster session for Pathfinders on Tuesday 22nd August which is half-price for children and adults to come and see for themselves how this new club will work. If you’d like to find out more about the taster session, just CLICK HERE.

To find out more about our new kids clubs based at Erddig, and to take advantage of ‘early bird’ booking discounts just follow THIS LINK.

family fun day in the woods

Even More Opportunities at Chirk Castle

forest school circle at chirk castle

The ‘woodland classroom’ amongst the ancient trees of the Chirk Castle estate.

Wrexham county is quite unique in that it hosts two major National Trust venues just within 15 minutes drive of each other. Not only will be offering our services to groups at Erddig but just down the road is the equally amazing Chirk Castle with it’s 480 acres of gardens and estate including deer parkland and ancient woodland. It’s a perfect venue for outdoor learning and we’re looking forward to getting stuck in and welcoming groups to our sessions.

Jon Hignett is the Visitor Experience Manager at Chirk Castle for the National Trust;

“We first started working with Woodland Classroom in April 2015 when our estate was used as the venue for their very popular Wildcraft Adventure sessions, using the clever template of explorer/builder type video games to engage with children in the outdoors. We could see from the first meeting that it would be a popular activity, and it has been a very effective partnership allowing experienced professionals to use Chirk Castle’s estate to help to move, teach and inspire young visitors and connect them with the outdoors at a young age. We’ve collaborated on a few projects since then, and throughout James and Lea have been wonderful to work with, positive, engaging, and committed. We’re eagerly looking forward to what future collaborations might bring!”

outdoor activities at chirk castle

Chirk Castle & Gardens, hosts over 480 acres of parkland estate within which we will be running our outdoor events.

What the Future Holds

Not only will we be offering our tried and tested activities for children, our the plan is to expand our work with adult learners also, making Felin Puleston Outdoor Centre a real hub for environmental education for all ages. We plan to offer training to adult learners in the following subjects:

Bushcraft, Tree Identification, Greenwood Crafts, Woodland Management, Mindfulness, Eco Therapy, Nature Awareness, Foraging and Leathercraft.

outdoors home ed group in wrexham

So, it’s exciting times for Woodland Classroom and we can’t wait to meet all the new people we will be working with.

Right, that’s enough typing for now… we’ve got a whole house full of stuff to move.

If you’d like to find out what we could offer you or your group at Woodland Classroom, then please get in touch. You can email us at [email protected] or phone James and Lea on 07876 794098.

campfire in thailand cave

My Bushcraft Journal: Part #4 The Deeper Jungle

Another day of jungle trekking was upon us; water scorpions, bats, deep caves, slingshots and knife work were all ahead on the trail. We were making our way toward the Thamtaralod Forest Park in Northern Thailand, not far from the border with Myanmar (Burma). The park is famous for it’s cave, which would be the highlight of our adventure.

huge jungle tree

Our guide Ting, explained the route… sort of, and we set off from the hill tribe village, giving our thanks for the fresh breakfast of mango, rice and greens we’d enjoyed. This morning we were joined by Djoe, whose family had hosted us the night before. Also joining us was Dham who must be in his early twenties and far fitter than me. Each of them carried their own machete, rather than being kept in a leather sheath as we would back home, they wrapped their prized tools in cloth and stuffed this into their belt. Later on that day, we’d get the chance to see that these tools were not just for hacking and slashing but could be put to fine whittling work in skilled hands.

Soon into our trek I spotted some dead tree stumps which had been hacked into with a machete. Ting explained that this was where local people were searching for burrowing grubs, deep inside the deadwood. These grubs were a valued food source. Thankfully, we didn’t find any ourselves, so I was spared the embarrassment of having turn one down.

Much of our route today would take us along the river, with plenty of opportunities to cool off. The water was warm and refreshing, with shoals of little fish darting in and out of the rock cover. I noticed our hill tribe guides were naturally very aware of their surroundings, always looking about them, ever alert, where as I found myself looking down at my feet more often than not to ensure a steady footing. Djoe and Dham moved with much more confidence though and I watched them scanning the tree tops, with an eye for opportunity. These guys were naturally suited and adapted to their environment, just a quick look at the muscles on their legs was testament to that, shaped by years of walking up and down the steep jungle paths.

walking along the river
Our youngest guide stopped and pulled out a simple slingshot from his pocket. Grabbing a few river pebbles he started launching the stones at a target high up in the trees above him. Ting told me this was an ants nest and these ants were another potential food source. Whether it was the young grubs or the ants themselves that Dham wanted I wasn’t sure. Either way, after a few attempts, he gave up and the ants were left to continue their daily lives. The opportunity to try the slingshot for myself was to good to pass up though, so we had some fun doing target practise at a tree across the river.

We stopped for our mid morning break and our guides unwrapped their machetes and started work whittling away some fresh (green) bamboo. They were making chopsticks, ready for our lunch later and as I’d brought my own knife along I wanted to give it a go. I found bamboo easy to carve and we made short work of the chopsticks, including a few fine details here and there. However, whilst I was using my small Swedish whittling knife, our guides were using their much larger machetes and getting the same (if not better) results which shows how in the right hands this large tool can be used for fine work. I guess it shows that when you’re in the jungle you don’t want to be carrying multiple tools around. As the old saying goes, “The more you know, the less you need.”

making chopsticks

Whittling fresh bamboo to make chopsticks. My Swedish knife versus their machetes.

It was a real treat to watch this simple craft being done by local people in such a natural setting and I was looking forward to seeing their bushcraft in action again later as we were going to need to fashion some torches ready for exploring the cave toward the end of our journey.

beautiful streamWhilst cooling off my toes in the river, I spotted what looked like a water scorpion, with pincers just large enough to give my little toe a nip. Ting grinned, saying “they could give you a nasty bite” but with the look on his face I think he was having me on. Best to play it safe though, time to move on. We came across a tree that Ting cut a small slice from, telling us that the bark is used locally as a medicine, boiled in a tea. Or you could chew the bark to release the medicine. It tasted bitter and reminded me of how willow was used in our past for similar purposes. Willow bark contains a chemical similar to aspirin. Whilst walking I’d noticed Djoe heading off trail here and there to inspect dead bamboo trees, he was clearly searching for the right one. After a few non-starters he hacked into one and selected a length to take with him. The reason for this would become clear later.

Here and there along the river’s length I saw the remains of what looked like simple bamboo frames spanning the width of the river. I asked Ting what these were and he explained that the local people had made fish traps. Having built a bamboo fence across the river, earth would then be piled up to block the river flow. Downstream the river would temporarily dry out so that fish could be picked easily from the mud. Once the catch was done, the river would be unblocked. I wondered if the the bamboo frames get used more than once? That would explain why they’d been left in-situ.

fish traps on the river

cooling off in a jungle waterfallAfter some hopping from boulder to boulder and crossing precarious fallen logs over the rushing river water we reached a little patch of paradise… a small waterfall, complete with natural swimming pool. This is the stuff that old Bounty chocolate commercials were made of. We stripped off and enjoyed the cool water, trying our best to ignore the large spiders suspended in webs not far above us – I never saw them on a Bounty advert. Seriously though, it doesn’t get much better than this, being able to enjoy this special place, with river water just the right temperature. Exactly what you need after half a day’s hike in the tropical heat.

There was another surprise waiting for us when we finished our dip, lunch was served, wrapped in banana leaves. Rice with tofu and greens, cooked fresh that morning. Time to use our chopsticks and see if mine were up to scratch. I’m pleased to say they performed well, though whether I was doing it entirely right, who knows? Dessert was fresh pineapple – which of course over here tastes so much better than what you can buy at home. This was true of all the fruit on our Thailand travels.

jungle food

Our guides had kept these treats well stashed, seemingly producing them from nowhere. Bamboo once again showed off it’s versatility, this time as a drinking cup.

Rested, fed and watered we set off to find the highlight of the trip, the Thamtaralod Cave, complete with bats and rushing water. On our way we stopped at another beautiful location, a bamboo camp. This place was used by trekking groups taking longer trips. We were just passing through but it was great to see how the structure was put together, highlighting again the amazing properties of bamboo as a building material. Being naturally cylindrical it’s very strong and being hollow it’s light to carry. Even the young bamboo shoots can be used for food. I might start calling bamboo the tree of a thousand uses. It seems to be intrinsically linked with the history and way of life of the local people. We stopped at the camp for a short while to make preparations for entering the cave. This is where I got to see some real bushcraft in action.

It was time to put the dead bamboo rod, that Djoe had carried with him, to good use. Ting explained that they would be making bamboo torches which would be lit to explore the cave safely. This explained why the bamboo needed to be dead, so it was dry and took a flame easily. Our guides set to work with their machetes splitting the lengths of bamboo into thin sticks. I had a go myself and once again the bamboo responded very well, being easy to split and running straight. I’ve split hazel rods before for hurdle-making  back home but this task was much easier. The broad nature of the machetes also aided easy splitting as a quick twist of the blade would encourage the dry wood to split down it’s length, without the need to cut much further into the wood.

bushcraft bamboo torch collageSplit sticks were then bundled together and these bundles were tied together using natural cordage. This was more bamboo, but fresh and green this time, which had been soaked in the river. I imagine the soaking served one or both of these jobs; to make the cordage flexible for us and/or to help prevent the flames from burning through the cordage once it was holding the torch together.

Setting off again, torches over our shoulders, it wasn’t long before we came to the cave entrance, and it was an impressive site. The river flowed out of the base and sound of the rushing water could be heard coming from the dark depths within. We could not see any light inside, so who knows how long the cave was. Ting told us that bats roost above among the stalactites and we could see the evidence of their droppings on the cave floor below. Time to use the torches!

lighting bamboo torches

Lighting up the bamboo torches at the entrance to the Thamtaralod Cave.

They lit easily and gave off a steady flame, burning for the good 20 minutes it took to reach the other cave side. Plunging into the cave with a flaming torch, whilst deep in the jungle has got to be an Indiana Jones moment if ever there was one – I was in my element and grinning from ear to ear. The cave roof was high above us, so the smoke wasn’t a problem. The main hazard was watching where you put your feet as the rushing water covered treacherous rocks and ledges – so we took it slow. Any points I gained for looking cool whilst brandishing a flaming bamboo torch in a jungle cave would have been swiftly lost if I stumbled and snuffed it out in the dark water. I loved it all though , and felt like an explorer discovering a brave new world.

torches in the caveWe made our way around another rocky bend, then we could see the light at the other end of the tunnel, which revealed a huge cave opening bigger than my house. The bamboo torches were brought together and placed in an old fire pit which gave us some more light to see by. We sat down for a rest on a large ledge within the cave mouth. As we took in the scenery around us it struck me how people from ages past must have used this place as shelter and refuge. The ledge was large enough to accommodate many people and the fireplace our torches flickered away in sat on a raised bowl of earth, and I wondered whether this was a recent addition or something that had been formed by our guides ancestors generations before. Between the fresh water supply, the fish that were abundant in the river, the bamboo growing all round us and the shelter the cave provided I thought this must have been a place where native peoples had lived in the past. I should have asked our guides, but I was too caught up in the moment.

beautiful jungle cave chamberIt was time to say farewell to Djoe and Dham, whilst Ting would lead us up the final hill toward our waiting vehicle. Our guides for the day waved farewell and took their bamboo torches back into the depths of the cave. The image of the flicker of red flame against the natural rock will stay with me for a long time.

our jungle trek guides

Our three guides, taking a well earned break at the fireside. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and skills with us.

Our final trek up the hill was a bit of a scorcher in the afternoon heat, with little shelter as more trees had been cut back in this area to make way for rice fields and grazing. The signs of human habitation were definitely showing again. The final give away was the pick up truck waiting for us at the top of the hill… a welcome sight by that time I must say. After a very bumpy and dusty ride in the truck, we pulled up for a cool Chang beer in a roadside cafe. As you can imagine, it tasted great.

campfire in thailand caveThanks to our guides Ting, Djoe and Dham for answering all my endless questions and letting me get stuck into the activities. Thanks also to Pooh Eco Trekking for a great experience that I won’t forget. I’ve loved exploring the jungle, if only for a brief time, but it’s also made me feel eager to get back to my native broadleaf woods and get stuck into bushcraft over the coming spring and summer. I know where I belong and my heart lies in the woods of Britain… plus the spiders are much smaller there.

Thanks for reading.

end of jungle trek

Tired, sweaty and ready for a cool beer, at the end of our jungle odyssey. We won’t forget this beautiful place.

James is currently studying a 2 year programme to become a recognised Bushcraft Instructor. He is aiming to gain a Bushcraft Competency Certificate through the Institute for Outdoor Learning. As part of his training he must keep a portfolio of his own learning and experience, successes and failures. This online Bushcraft Journal is a part of that record. His goal is to not only to have a great time learning a host of new outdoor skills but also to then apply these skills to his work so that he can offer better bushcraft experiences with Woodland Classroom to both adults and children, which he hopes will inspire them too.

bushcraft jungle trek adventure

My Bushcraft Journal: Part #3 Into The Jungle

Cobras, rattlesnakes, giant spiders, termites, exploring caves, tasting strange foods – all part of my two day jungle adventure in Northern Thailand. Whilst on holiday with Lea (actually, our honeymoon) I wanted to get out into the wild and see the jungle up close…. so we discovered Pooh Eco Trekking who have a great range of trips that worked alongside the local Karen hill tribe, including them as guides and hosts, so providing an income for them from eco-tourism. Our trek would take us close to the border with Myanmar (formerly Burma) through rivers, caves, villages, steep slopes and winding pathways. I wanted to go on the trek, not only to prove to myself that I could do it but also to experience a taste of the jungle and also see how the local hill tribe peoples lived in this environment and hopefully some of their traditional (though still very relevant) bushcraft skills for myself.

thailand jungleIt was 2 hour drive from Chang Mai to get to our dropping off point and if the craziness of the driver was anything to go by, the next couple of days would be filled with unpredictability. I’m not sure whether he thought his minivan was in fact a race car but he certainly drove like it was, weaving in and out of traffic and over-taking on blind corners. Our guide (Ting) seemed to take it all in his stride, so I assumed this driving was business as usual. As we climbed through the mountains to ever higher ground I noticed the broadleaf jungle gave way to scatterings of pine trees as our altitude increased. Then as we came down into valleys again, the number of pines would decrease again. I hadn’t expected to see such trees here at all. Despite our unpredictable driver, we got there in one piece, if a little shaken.

karen hill tribe weavingWe hopped into a pick up truck to take us down a bumpy track to a village which would mark the start of our jungle trek proper. Here we saw timeless Karen hill tribe crafts in action as a lady demonstrated the weaving of traditional Karen dress for women. The skirt she was weaving would take 2 weeks of constant work to complete. The colours in the cloth were almost garishly bright, reds, blues and yellows, which in Britain would look well out of place, but here they were beautiful.

Pulling my backpack on, we began what would be 3½ hours of trekking to our hill tribe homestay. We started down well worn paths which passed fields which had been cleared for the jungle using controlled fires. These areas were being made ready for the coming wet season when crops such as rice and corn could be planted up, growing in just 3 months, ready for harvest. It was the dry season now so there was less plant life on the jungle floor. We passed the occasional group of cows, bells clanking to give their location away to the farmers. I bet it would be easy to lose something as big as a cow in the jungle. Overhead we passed a few giant spiders (as big as your hand) sitting, suspended in their large webs between trees. I gave them a wide berth… I’m not the biggest fan of our eight legged friends.

bushcraft jungle trek

Beautiful, clear waters running through the jungle, friendly local wildlife and our intrepid explorer.

I also noticed something that was very familiar to me from back home. I spotted trees that had been cut down at their base and allowed to regrow again as multi stems, with rods reaching straight up to the sky. I hadn’t expected to see coppicing here. Coppicing is the traditional woodland management practise in which a sustainable crop of underwood can be produced for a variety of uses (from greenwood crafts to charcoal production). Our guide told us that the locals were harvesting the wood here for firewood on a regular rotation. In addition bamboo was being coppiced to produce straight rods of a useful diameter for building projects. The bamboo was allowed to grow on to a manageable size. All this cutting work was done by hand tools, much with the machete, which here is called simply “mid” the Thai word for knife. It was great to see this sustainable harvesting process in action in a place where it was truly relevant and thriving.

bushcraft jungle trek in thailand

Amazing, huge trees which keep growing all year round. Sustainable woodland management, jungle style, with coppicing for firewood and building material.

It was about this time that our guide spotted something we’d all missed, a cobra, hunting in and out of holes in the ground which had been burrowed by some small mammal. This was no small snake and I admit I felt a little sorry for the furry victim that would no doubt soon be on the receiving end of the hunt. But, that’s nature for you.

Another traditional woodland practise I saw was ring-barking, where a standing tree is stripped of it’s bark right around the trunk at chest level. With the life giving sap travelling through the outer layers of a tree this kills the tree and leaves a standing dead skeleton. This can be a useful practise (if done correctly) in Britain for creating standing dead wood to increase wildlife biodiversity. here though it had a more practical purpose… to create seasoned firewood that would stand and dry in the woodland, ready to be felled when needed. I imagine that this is something that was done in our country also back in medieval times and earlier.

The whole jungle seems browner and drier than I expected, even considering the season, but as we approached the valley floor everything became more lush and as I’d expect a jungle to look, you can blame Hollywood for that fixed vision in my head. As we turned a corner we came across a huge termite mound! Standing higher than me and feeling very solid, it’s amazing to think that such vast structures can be built by something so small. I’m very glad we don’t have termites in the UK as the damage they do to wood is impressive, if a little worrying. You’ve got to wonder at the awesome power of nature though.

jungle machete bushcraft

In the words of Crocodile Dundee… “now that’s a knife.”

Our guide had stopped ahead of us again, but this time I knew this meant there was something interesting to see. He’d heard a rattlesnake and seen it slither off away from the path as we approached. I imagine it would be so easy to be inches away from any animal (dangerous or not) and not know it was there, as the jungle is so dense away from the well trodden paths and many creatures are well camouflaged. I tried to remember the advice of Ray Mears in a programme of his I’d watched years ago… did he say “don’t step on a log incase you disturb the snake underneath it” or was it “step on the log so that you disturb any snake before you step on it” I honestly couldn’t remember… typical!

We came to the river at the base of the valley and I was able to cool my feet off in the water, which was very welcome. As I took a rest, I spotted a plant that looked very familiar growing near the riverbank. It looked like an oversized four leaf clover and I though it might be Wood Sorrel, which is edible and tastes like sour-apple – I love it. Asking our guide it turned out not to be Wood Sorrel but was also edible. It tasted like a salad leaf, and he said that’s how they used it.

jungle hill tribe river workshop

The remains of a riverside workshop where a machete has been hard at work. The beautiful river wound through the bottom of the steep sided valley.

Walking along the cool riverbed, with steep sided jungle walls climbing either side of us gave me the feeling of being nestled in the womb of the Earth, life was everywhere. This seemed more like the wild jungle and wilderness I had in my mind when I booked this trek. But looking around there was also plenty of signs of how the local people were living with the land. Remnants of a make-shift riverside workshop for crafting on-the-spot tools. Bamboo rods grew either side of the riverbank and there were plenty of splintered canes which were leftovers from previous activity. We also came across the remains of old campfires, with only the charred embers as sign. There was no modern litter though, as you might find in a similar situation back home, and that was heartening to see.

Eventually we arrived at our hill tribe homestay, a small village sitting on the hillside – to be honest I couldn’t tell you where it was. We met a few of the older villagers and one man proudly showed off his traditional tattoos across his upper legs. Our Guide also told us that they have these intricate designs all around their groin also, but the old man didn’t show us that… thankfully. These tattoos are done using a bamboo needle. I was starting to see how important the bamboo was to the local people here, it had so many uses.

I watched a local girl with her mother picking seed pods from high up in a tree using a very long hook. They were harvesting tamarind which has a few uses including the flesh as a flavouring in food, added to curry pastes. The shell is used to add to tobacco in hand-made cigarettes and the flesh can also be made into a glue. Having tried the raw tamarind I can tell you it tastes like sour-apple sweets, and is very strong. I actually quite liked it. Once harvested from the tree the flesh would be separated from the shells where they would all be laid out to dry on racks in the sun before being processed.

bushcraft jungle trek hill tribe village

A typical house in our host’s village. Drying tamarind out in the sun. Familiar shaped plants aren’t always what they appear to be.

Our host for the evening was Djoe and his family. The company that organise the treks have a close relationship with the local Karen hill tribe and have an arrangement that families will take it in turns to host trekkers and so payment for the service gets spread evenly through the village. Also, it turned out that Djoe would be joining us as an additional guide for day two of the trek.

hill tribe homestayTheir simple house had a central fireplace, the hub of the home. I noticed hanging on the wall a fine collection of machetes, which any bushcrafter would be envious of. Smoke drifted out of smoke-holes in the roof and as we rested before being served dinner I enjoyed how quiet everything was. No traffic noise here.

Our well-earned dinner included a delicious spicy minced fish, a very spicy soup, steamed rice, cabbage in soy and pumpkin. The food was simple and excellent. After being well-fed and watered all that was left was to watch the sun go do
wn behind the neighbouring mountain as the sounds of the millions of jungle insects rose around us. I think we’d definitely use the mosquito net tonight.

In the second part of my account of the jungle trek we would have a whole host of new adventures and experiences including exploring a river cave with flaming torches crafted from bamboo – which was pretty special. You can read all about those adventures very soon.

Thanks for reading.

James

jungle sunset

Sunset looking from the house of my hill tribe homestay. The end of a great day.

James is currently studying a 2 year programme to become a recognised Bushcraft Instructor. He is aiming to gain a Bushcraft Competency Certificate through the Institute for Outdoor Learning. As part of his training he must keep a portfolio of his own learning and experience, successes and failures. This online Bushcraft Journal is a part of that record. His goal is to not only to have a great time learning a host of new outdoor skills but also to then apply these skills to his work so that he can offer better bushcraft experiences with Woodland Classroom to both adults and children, which he hopes will inspire them too.

tasty bread from a dutch oven

My Bushcraft Journal: Part #2 Baking in a Dutch Oven

Baking bread out in the woods has always been one of those mystic arts to me. Something that, like tool sharpening, seems shrouded in mystery. With my ongoing Bushcraft Instructor training I thought it was high time that I made an effort to try it for myself. What’s the worst that could happen?

I also had a 4 litre dutch oven sitting in my shed, which was a Christmas present 2 years ago. I always felt a bit guilty when I came across it. So it was time to do it justice.

I’ve seen it done before but couldn’t for the life of me remember the exact method the teacher used at the time. So when it came to our next bushcraft training sessions I told everyone that I would bake them a loaf for the evening. The challenge was on.

The trick to using a dutch oven, as far as I understood it, was to get an even heat around the whole pot so that your bread would bake all round. So what was needed was a campfire that had been burning for a while to produce a good amount of hot coals, more like what you’d get in a barbecue. It’s this bed of coals and ember that makes an effective cooking fire, rather than roaring flames. I actually brought along some Welsh charcoal for the bake as I wasn’t sure what state the communal fire would be in by the time I came to experiment. This worked really well but I imagine if you use hardwood firewood and burn it down to coals it would be just as good.

cooking bread in a dutch oven for bushcraft

Above: This is not the same loaf as I cooked as it was dark by the time I was baking. You can see though how the coals have been placed on top of the oven lid it help it bake with an even heat.

The good news is that the loaf was a success! In fact it was one of the best loaves I’ve ever tasted, and even better that it was fresh out of the oven. Everyone complimented my on it and the mystery of using a dutch oven is firmly behind me, though I imagine there’s a lot to learn yet. For anyone who wants to give it a go for themselves I’m going to share that tasty recipe with you now….

STOUT & FRUIT SODA BREAD

This recipe fed 6 adults with a very generous slice of bread. They all loved it. Any left over stout can be generously gifted to a camping buddy that likes that sort of thing. I prefer cider myself. Having enjoyed this loaf myself I can say that it was delicious straight out the oven and didn’t even need any butter to improve it though you can try that if you like. It tasted more like a cake than bread 🙂

WHAT YOU NEED

4 litre dutch oven • large mixing bowl • mixing spoon (whittled by yourself preferably) • a metal dish that will sit in the bottom of your oven • 4 small stones (trust me)

INGREDIENTS

2 big overflowing handfuls of strong wholemeal flour

2 big overflowing handfuls of strong plain flour

A half handful of sugar (caster sugar is best as it’s finer)

1 heaped tablespoon of baking powder

1 good pinch of salt

1 big overflowing handful of mixed dry fruit

1 egg

1 can of stout

Keep some extra spare flour left aside for dusting the metal dish

METHOD

Mix up all the dry ingredients together. I did this in advance before the trip and put them in a plastic tub so it would save doing it around the campfire at night.

In your mixing bowl make a well in the middle of the dry mix and add crack the egg in. Then mix with your wooden spoon.

Slowly add the stout until all the dry ingredients are mixed in and you have a ball of dough that holds it shape.

Coat your metal dish in a light layer of your spare flour. This will stop the bread from sticking to the dish.

Place your dough onto the floured dish and sprinkle a little sugar on top.

Now it’s time to use those 4 mysterious small stones. These are placed evenly spaced at the bottom of the dutch oven. The metal dish is then placed on top of these so it sits comfortably. What this does is elevate the dish from the bottom of the dutch oven to allow the air to circulate. This all helps prevent the lower crust from burning.

Place the lid onto the oven and pop it into your campfire.

We surrounded the oven with a ring of charcoal and placed some hot coals evenly on top. This is the part of the process that inly experience can teach you and I’m looking forward to trying this recipe again and seeing if the cooking time changes. I imagine it depends on how hot your fire is and how even the coals are around your oven.

I checked the loaf after 15 minutes and we all agreed it needed longer.

I cooked my loaf for 25-30 minutes but I think i could have got away with taking it out a bit sooner. You will see some burn on the left hand side of the close up picture. This is where there was a flaming log placed right up against the dutch oven so I think it caused that side of the oven to be hotter.

The last tip I was given was to use a clean knife to push into the middle of the loaf. If it comes out clean then the bread is ready.

tasty bread from a dutch oven

Above: The complete loaf. Not bad at all for a first effort. In fact it was one of the best breads I’ve ever tasted.

By the way, did you know that the phrase “the upper crust” comes from a time when those who could afford it would get the more valuable upper section of the loaf rather than the often burnt bottom. So the rich were referred to at the “upper crust.”

I hope this has inspired you to try dutch oven baking for yourself. I’ve definitely got the hook and have made a promise to myself to try a different recipe each time I go camping now. Suddenly the world of outdoor baking has completely open up to me. It’s a real sense of achievement.

Thanks for reading.

James K

bushcraft leader with shelter

My Bushcraft Journal: Part #1 Building Better Shelters

Hello folks. My name is James and I am an outdoor activity leader at Woodland Classroom, where we pass woodland skills and nature knowledge onto others with our sessions. Bushcraft is an element of what we do, fire-lighting, den building and campfire cooking etc but mostly it’s at a basic level. For a while now I’ve been wanting to improve my bushcraft skills and really go much further in depth not only because I love being out in the woods but also so that I can pass these skills onto others someday and continue to inspire children to fall in love with nature and being outdoors.

So, I’ve taken the plunge and enrolled on a 2 year Bushcraft Instructor training course which is going to really push me to up my game which is not only going to be a lot of fun but will also help me to offer so much more to our customers in the future.

Fire by friction, wild food, whittling, advanced shelter building, natural cordage and plant identification are just some of the skills I’ll be covering over the next two years. I’m quite excited.

Who knows, perhaps I’ll be able to call myself a proper bushcraft instructor when it’s all done. Saying that though, you never stop learning and with any good subject worth getting your teeth into, bushcraft is one of those fields of learning that the more questions you answer, the more questions there are. I imagine I will never stop learning.

Part of my training includes keeping a journal of my time learning bushcraft skills, so I though why not make it a blog and you can share my journey, my successes and my inevitable failures too.

As an old teacher once said to me though, “There are no mistakes. Just learning opportunities.”

So without further ado, here is my account of a day spent shelter building.

bushcraft leader with shelter

Building Better Shelters

Aim of the Day: To construct a one-person shelter using only natural materials, preferably with no cordage, which would be rain-proof.

I had a dry and sunny winter day to do this with no distractions which was good because proper shelter building is a lengthy task. From my training I knew that it took 6 of us a couple of hours to construct an effective shelter from scratch, so I would have my work cut out if I as to get it done all in one day.

There had been some recent tree felling work in the woods, cutting down young hazel stools under the power lines, so this as perfect material with which to construct the frame with as hazel is strong, flexible and being freshly cut it should have a longer life span than using older, more seasoned wood from the forest floor.

I wanted to build a classic kennel shelter, sometimes called the a-frame shelter, which uses just 3 sticks to support the whole structure. The shelter also has little room for movement once you’re inside so that there is less air space to be warmed up.

building a kennel shelter

Above: In Ray Mears’ Outdoor Survival Handbook, he describes the stages of building the kennel shelter.

The first task was to find a piece of ground that is flat, no mean feat in Wales. Another tip I had been given was to get down low to the ground so that you can see the small undulations that make up the lay of the land. This way I could pick out a spot that was not only flat, but would not be a pool for water if the weather turned wet and also was slightly raised from the surrounding land, again to shed ground surface water if needed.

My tutor had told me the importance of of ensuring that the triangular frame is locked together well and that each pole is well supported. The most effective way to do this (without using cordage) is using the method seen in the next picture.

shelter build - interlocking polesHere, the ridge pole is resting on both forked sticks and these are also interlocked. This should help prevent slippage and ensures that the weight of the shelter is evenly distributed. I don’t want it all coming down on me in the middle of the night. For some additional support, I saw that there was a convenient stump which I could rest the base of the right-hand pole against. This is certainly not essential, but a bit of added piece of mind.

Next up I started placing the uprights on either side of the shelter frame. These were no closer than a good hand span apart as if they were too close then I would have trouble weaving between them later when building up the walls of the shelter.

I had also been advised to not allow the uprights to stick up too much above the ridge pole as this would encourage rainwater to run down poles and then drip through into the shelter – which I imagine could be very annoying at 2am.

For weavers between the uprights I mostly used birch branches that were lying around the woodland, as when green they are still flexible. Any that were too far gone and dry, went in  a separate pile for firewood. It was time to start a fire for a well earned brew in my billy can. Think birch is quickly becoming my favourite tree because the more I learn about it, the more uses it seems to have – perhaps that’s the subject of a future journal entry.

Birch’s associations with fire are well known in the outdoor pursuits world and it makes great kindling for getting a blaze going. As soon as the fire was going I felt like I had arrived properly.

building a natural shelter in the woodsAbove: Burying the end of the ridge pole into the earth to help prevent it from slipping. Resting one of the forked poles against a convenient stump for added stability. And getting my tea on with my new billy can.

During my Bushcraft Instructor training we had plenty of bracken around us to use as a thatched covering for the weavers on the roof. You can see an example of that in the first picture on this blog page. But at my local woods bracken was not an option so I would have to go with the less effective (so I’m told) leaf litter – which was in abundance at this time of year. There was plenty of beech trees about and their leaves make a carpet on the woodland floor and I know these leaves to last pretty well rather than rot away quickly so this seems a good choice.  Using a blanket I could gather up lots of leaves quickly and then drag the full blanket over to the shelter.

This was still much more work than I had anticipated though and I had been advised to have a full arm’s length depth of leaf litter on the shelter to make it effective against the worst the weather could throw at it. This was a real eye opener as it soon became apparent just how much material I would need just for my little one-man shelter.

shelter building in the woods of wales

Above: The complete naked skeleton of my kennel shelter, complete with weavers from fallen birch with some hazel brash too for good measure.

Another thing I noticed when using the leaf litter was that leaves had a habit of tumbling down to the base of the shelter so that I was ending up with a lot of material close to the ground and hardly any on top. Stuffing handfuls of leaves between the weavers seems to help this to an extent as it gave the leaves something to grip to. But I wonder if this is also a common problem when using leaf litter like this and whether with enough depth of material you eventually over come it? I wasn’t going to find out today.

The day was drawing on and I still wasn’t complete. By the time the light was failing I had to accept that the shelter would not be completed today (the luxury of not actually being in a real survival situation) and I would have to return another day. I had got one side of the shelter completely covered with a fair depth of leaves, but by no means enough, and I was satisfied that I could return another day and complete the job, ready for a trial sleep out.

My last job was to put out my small brew fire and scatter the cold ashes to leave no trace – an important philosophy in bushcraft.

So, what were the main learning points for me:

  1. Shelter building takes longer than you think.
  2. It’s important to get the 3 main poles locked together correctly to maximise stability and strength.
  3. Don’t put the uprights too close together.
  4. Don’t let the uprights protrude too far above the ridge pole, so avoiding night time drips.
  5. If using leaf litter – allow for A LOT of material.
  6. Stuff the leaves into the weavers to encourage them to group to the shelter sides.
  7. Get up earlier in the morning and start sooner *laugh*

half built shelter

Above: The end of a day’s work.. well a leisurely days work anyway. I’m looking forward to coming back to complete the job and test it out.

That’s all for now. I hope to keep my Bushcraft Journal up to date with regular posts, so watch this space.

Thanks for reading.

James K

ray mears champions forest school

RAY MEARS CHAMPIONS FOREST SCHOOL

TV presenter, author and bushcraft expert Ray Mears has given forest schools his seal of approval. Having observed a forest school group during a recent canoe trip he described how one boy “… was building his own legend, the person he was going to become. He’d become something more and that’s what it’s about. There’s a chance (in forest schools) for self-discovery and self-empowerment.”

Forest School is a thriving, growing movement worldwide which is getting children of all ages outdoors to learn at their own pace and embrace the natural world around them. As a forest school leader myself and long term follower of Ray’s work I felt really lucky to be able to join in a televised discussion on the merits of learning in the great outdoors.

ray mears champions forest schoolAbove: Ray Mears in his element. Photograph by Goh Iromoto

Ray Mears is a world-renowned champion of bushcraft and wilderness skills, having starred in numerous television series and written books on the subject, which have inspired millions.

During a recent television debate in the UK, the panel, including Ray, was posed the question; would they send their kids to a summer crammer where they could brush up on their academic skills and get ahead of the class, or would they pack their kids off to a forest school where they could learn skills like fire-lighting, den building and woodcraft.

Ray replied, “the child has got to want to be there, they might want to go to a crammer, I think there’s a place for both.” This, to me, underlies a key point that parents and teachers each have a responsibility to fire children’s passions and interests in whatever subject or activity it is that gets them excited about learning.

Ray explained how the forest school camp system works in Canada where this approach to learning is well-established, “…a child goes very young and gets to do activities and then they go back the next year, they’re a little older and get given more responsibility and eventually they’re doing 21 day trips on their own by canoe, boys or girls, through the wilderness and they’re capable.” What an amazing adventure for any young person that would be.

During the debate a recent study was quoted which states, “three quarters of kids who go to a summer crammer will end up at a top university, compared to half of those from similar backgrounds who don’t.” But on the flip side of that argument, “child psychologists say that outdoor exploits aren’t only great for physical health but for mental health as well. The same psychologists also have concerns about ‘tiger parents’ who want to hothouse their kids in some sort of obsessive bid to produce pint-sized prodigies, who could end up stressed, frazzled and burned out by their late-teens and who could actually end up with mental health problems.”

I hadn’t heard of tiger parents, so I looked it up. Tiger parenting is a term which refers to strict or demanding parents who push their children to be successful in education by attaining high levels of scholastic and academic achievement, to the detriment of the child’s social, physical, psychological and emotional well-being. It sounds a world away from the child-led approach of a typical forest school where kids learn resourcefulness, team-work and determination. I feel that forced study risks leading kids toward depression, anxiety and stress.

ray mears championing outdoor learningAbove: Ray Mears has seen first hand the positive benefits of forest school teachings. Photograph by Goh Iromoto

Ray spoke about his recent trip to Canada where he got the chance to observe children who attended a forest school camp. “I gave a presentation at a festival and in the audience there were some kids from one of these summer camps. I was watching one of these youngsters because he was carrying a book around with him. The book was written by a naturalist I’m really fond of, Grey Owl, who lived in that area. This was a heavy tome for a youngster to read by today’s standards but I saw that he treasured that book.”

“The next day I’m out on a canoe trip and I could see that same party of youngsters (canoeing) on the other side of the lake. These were boys of about fifteen and they had passed the hardship point, because it’s a hard way to travel.” Seeing that same boy who the day before had been clutching his precious book Ray described the look on the child’s face, “you could actually see that with every paddle stroke he took he was building his own legend, the person he was going to become. He’d become something more and that’s what it’s about. There’s a chance for self-discovery, self-empowerment and it’s no surprise that the youngsters who go to these summer schools very often end up as leaders in that part of the world and it’s a great thing to see.”

The main thrust of the debate was a parent’s choice between a summer crammer or forest school for their kids and during the phone-in I got the chance to add my own observations to bolster Ray’s championing of forest school. “There’s no doubt that academia is important but what forest school does is give an opportunity for child-led learning away from the formal classroom setting. The kids who attend forest school are gaining a nature intelligence and an emotional intelligence, which in the long run, I believe, makes better rounded, more confident people. You give a child a sharp tool and it’s empowering, they get a fantastic experience from that.” Many children today have a disconnection between the natural world and the modern world we live in and forest school projects are providing an antidote for that.

Some cynics might say that today’s kids would rather be in front of their iPad than building dens outdoors, but I don’t think forest school is a hard sell to children. I believe it appeals to their sense of adventure and children should be allowed to have that experience and so much of that is getting lost now with the increasing time that kids spend on screens.

Ray added that, “There are a lot of British parents now sending their children to these camps in Canada and North America.” But for those wanting to keep their kids a bit closer to home you’ll be glad to know that forest school camps are growing in the UK too with providers offering everything from one day activity sessions to week-long wilderness experiences. I believe we will see more of these holiday clubs and camps in the future as more parents take action to combat the dangers of too much indoor screen time for their kids.

children at forest schoolAbove: Children immersed in nature and learning empowering new skills at one of our own forest school sessions. 

Regarding the ongoing fight in many family households to get kids away from their screen and back to the outdoors, Ray saved his best advice to parents for last, “The secret is that the parents need to do these things (outdoor activities) for themselves, that’s the best way, it’s just the normal way of growing up. If you want children to take an interest in nature, don’t just send them somewhere, have an interest yourself and it will be the most natural thing in the world for them to follow on.”

If you want to know more about what exactly a forest school is, check out our short video, appropriately titled “What Is Forest School?” RIGHT HERE

If you’re a parent who wants to find out more about local forest school providers in your area, I’d advise googling it, you’ll soon be heading down a rabbit hole of amazing projects to inspire your kids.

You can watch the full television debate with Ray Mears HERE. Skip ahead to 01:24:44 to see ‘Forest School vs Summer Crammer” You’ll be able to hear me trying not to sound nervous whilst talking to Ray, one of my childhood heroes.

kids get off screens and outdoors

Why Kids Chose to Ditch Their Video Screens To Go Wild Outdoors

Children are choosing to leave their screens behind and are opting for a new outdoor game which combines bushcraft & survival skills inspired by their favourite video games which aims to get them reconnected with nature and excited about the great outdoors once more. It’s been so successful that activity leaders across the globe are now signing up to run this game, Wildcraft Adventure, for themselves at their venues and joining the mission to get kids off-screen and outdoors.

kids get off screens and outdoors

Kids make their favourite video games come alive in the outdoors.

Wildcraft, borrows themes from popular video games like Minecraft and is giving kids an outdoor experience they won’t forget. Though barely a year old, it’s been a huge hit with parents and children.

Contact us to find out more.

Taking Video Games to Our Wild Spaces

It was over a year ago, we were sat in our garden and asked the question; “For those kids who are spending too much time glued to their screens and have little interest in getting out into nature, how do we engage them in a way so that they choose to go outside? Simple, we take their video games outdoors!”

But this is not Pokemon GO, we’re not getting kids to take their mobile devices out into the woods and calling it ‘quality time outdoors’, they’re leaving those at home to play a video game style adventure for real in the woods which includes all the challenges they’ll be familiar with whilst at the same time engaging them in the natural world. Yes, there’s lots of hidden nature-learning woven into the game and they have to use their new knowledge and skills to gain points and experience throughout the day.

When creating Wildcraft Adventure, we did some serious research. We watched and spoke with children playing games like Minecraft and Terraria, and talked to parents about their experience of their children’s love of video games. It soon became very clear that although the children do get a lot of pleasure from the games, it’s become a real problem for parents, as they want to put a reasonable restriction on their child’s screen time. Parents told us that they faced an uphill struggle as there’s such an addictive quality to these games that restricting screen time can cause arguments in the family home. Many children do not seem to be able to easily drag themselves away from their screens. The more parents we spoke with, the more we heard about this recurring problem in the home.

We remembered back when Super Mario & Sonic the Hedgehog first came out. There are many common themes in video games such as collecting resources, protecting yourself from monsters, beating the boss, making potions and building your world, which all fit really well with the outdoor adventure we were creating. Our game requires players to use team building, problem-solving and lots of imagination.

minecraft kids get outdoors

Kids sometimes come dressed as their favourite video game characters. They use new skills and their imaginations to build their camp.

Opening Up A Natural World of Adventures

Wildcraft is also proving to be a great gateway activity for kids who are coming along to our days and then wanting to know more about bushcraft, forest school and associated outdoor activities that are out there.

“Before coming I had tried to get (my son) to join in a forest school day but he said ‘it wasn’t his thing’. However ‘would you like to go on a Minecraft style bushcraft day?’ And he couldn’t sign up fast enough, he was so excited he couldn’t sleep the night before and you certainly didn’t disappoint on the day. Thank you.” Parent

We’ve heard so much about the growing concerns that so many parents have about the increasing amount of time that children spend in front of screens. And our Wildcraft Adventures are providing an antidote for that. We believe it’s really making a difference in inspiring children to get outdoors more.

“They were so inspired that they will be joining a local bushcraft group, so thank you.” Another Happy Parent

We’ve hosted over 35 of these events across Wales now, reaching hundreds of children. We’ve massed up over 4,200 hours of outdoor playtime for kids, when they might otherwise have been indoors playing computer games. So to us, that’s a really positive thing. Don’t get us wrong, we agree video games can be great fun, but what kids today need is a healthy balance in how they spend their time. Nature Deficit Disorder is a growing problem in our young people today.

Going Global

Woodland Classroom have teamed up with the National Trust and other venues across Wales to bring these events to as many children as possible. But they’re ambition to get more kids off-screen doesn’t stop there and now they have made Wildcraft Adventure available internationally to anyone who runs their own outdoor activity programmes so that they can run the event at their own venue. Activity Leaders in both in the UK and the US have already signed up to join the mission.

You Could Run Your Own Wildcraft Events

If you’re an activity leader who would be interested in hosting Wildcraft Adventure at your venue, then you can find out more HERE.

Wildcraft sets the players a number of challenges based in a whole day of activities. There are elements of forest school and bushcraft involved which combine with the video game theme to make a stand-alone lesson plan for experienced outdoor activity leaders to deliver.

“We’re really excited about the Wildcraft Adventure… I was really inspired by what you guys are doing.   We’re looking for ways to get our kids out of the classroom, playing together.  Your game gives us the perfect vehicle for mixed-age, cooperative, outdoor fun.” Brenda Sutter – Laurel Tree Charter School, California US.

In popular video games like Minecraft and Terraria, players have to survive in a hostile environment, build their own house, hunt for their food, search for materials and fend off wandering monsters. You can tell parents that their child may be able to survive in the wilderness on the computer screen, but can they do it out in the woods? Wildcraft slams down the gauntlet and kids are taking up the challenge.

What Parents Are Saying About Wildcraft

“Such a fantastic antidote to the ever increasing creep of the screen! Highly recommended and ever grateful.”

“My son had a fabulous time in a caring and safe environment. As an avid computer gamer, to spend all day outside living as a survivor was an amazing experience for him.”

“What an amazing experience for my son. Like many parents I worry about the time he spends on electronic games and the fact that I have to beg and bribe to get him outdoors. Not so with this genius idea to use popular computer games to tempt him into activities that I knew he would love if he would only give them a chance. When asked if he wanted to go again, my son’s reply was “no, Mum. I HAVE to go again.”

Parents who want to find out when and where the next Wildcraft Adventure is being run by Woodland Classroom can check out their upcoming events page HERE. We have also developed a version of the Wildcraft game that you can play in your own back garden with the kids. It’s called the Wildcraft: Home Edition. You can find out more about that RIGHT HERE.

If you want to find out about Wildcraft Adventures running outside of Wales then drop us a line to find out where you can sign up for a game near you.

children learning firelighting skills

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