The weather here has been changeable lately, offering up bright days that seem far too warm for November and then suddenly lashing down with rain that pours out of apocalyptic skies. We’ve been lighting lots of fires lately, and I dragged the sticks for kindling and fat logs from one site to another first thing this morning. The tire popped on the wheelbarrow almost immediately, and I had to push the thing like a plough along the roads and over the busy London crosswalks towards the play garden.
I lifted the lid off the fire pit and wadded up yesterday’s newspapers into balls. A little rain was dripping, but if you let that put you off in London you’d never get anything done. A couple boys came out to see what I was doing, broke some sticks for me and then wandered off. One boy of about twelve stayed, poking the dirt with a branch and watching me.
“Why are you doing that?” He asked, and I explained the idea of kindling, of laying a fire so it had the chance to grow.
“Can I help?” I gave him the matches to keep in his pockets while we piled up the sticks against one another. We lit it, pointing out to one another where the flames had caught and where needed another match, then falling into the quiet staring that often happens fireside. The rain began in earnest and, hoods up, we discussed whether the wood would get too damp to burn. We fanned with a newspaper which quickly soaked through and collapsed into flakes which he threw on top. He practiced lighting matches, which he was still mastering, and found that the breeze and the rain put out the few he got to spark. The rain got heavier and the clouds boiled grey above us. I heard later that severe weather warnings had been issued because of the gale force winds, and the flooding. Behind us the shed roof creaked and tugged up at its screws. It was bitter, biting cold. My jeans were wet through and I wondered how many more matches he would want to light. He picked up some leaves to burn over the persistent lumps of firestarter block that still flamed, and the firepit and my boots slowly filled up with water.
“This is brilliant,” he said. I realized suddenly that I had only ever heard him speak enthusiastically about celebrities and television before. “I feel like Ray Mears*,” he continued, smiling at me through the tiny gap in his cinched-up hood. We stood out there until the rough sides of the matchbox peeled off in wet lumps and the tiny fire drowned. Back inside, he suggested that next time we try making fires on rocks and wondered if he’d have more luck lighting moss with flints, rather than those damp wooden matches. He was, with excitement and imagination, talking about becoming a person he’d admired.
Many people would not immediately think of this as play. There was no dressing up, no games of pretend. It was serious, with a goal clearly in mind. The whole thing was thrilling for him, and frustrating. It was done for its own sake, experienced fully and explored according to his own interests and desires. The best support that I could give him as a playworker was the space to do this, the opportunity and the permission.
Fire is a difficult thing for many people to support in play. Parents, practitioners and governing bodies are afraid it is dangerous, difficult to manage. They are afraid what children might do with it, to themselves or one another. But fire demands our respect, it makes you work to be a part of it. It is exciting and primal, encouraging both thoughts of survival against the odds and of camaraderie. Just because you have to take it seriously doesn’t mean it can’t be playful.
For playworkers who are interested in bringing fire onto their sites but nervous, I recommend starting with tea light candles. They’re familiar as birthday cakes, but children rarely get the chance to ‘own’ a fire, to start and guard and feed it. Tea lights are very difficult to knock over, and tend to go out if you drop them. You can also make tiny fires, out of starter cubes, bits of string or paper, in tin foil muffin cups.
Building up towards bigger fires is worth it though. We like to build them up to a medium size and let the kids jump them. You can’t beat it for the atmosphere, or the marshmallows.
*For those outside the UK Ray Mears is a bushcraft and survival expert, and presenter of TV shows World of Survival and Extreme Survival.