Enabling Environments: Forest Schools: Part 5 - On fire

Sarah Blackwell
Monday, July 11, 2011

Light the sparks of learning and independence in Forest School activities using fire. Sarah Blackwell explains how to do it safely, and Forest Schools Birmingham and Midlands describe their experiences in an online-only case study

In the latter stages of a Forest Schools programme, children can move on to lighting and managing fires, an activity that teaches children an array of life skills, from independence and risk management to self-regulation and self-awareness.

As with all other Forest Schools activities, building fires also opens up enormous opportunities for children to learn about the world around them. Practitioners need to be clear about the purpose of the session and the desired outcomes. Fires are not an obligatory part of Forest Schools, and only well-planned sessions will maximise the possibilities for exploration.


The area set out for the fire should consist of:

  • a clearly defined circle, triangle or square for the fire, 1m in diameter and bordered with green logs or impermeable rocks (permeable rocks can shatter when hot). I tend to have two rings of logs or stones to provide a wider boundary.
  • a clear, flat working area between the fire and log seats or benches and about 2m wide. This area should allow ease of movement for the adults managing the session, or for up to four children who may be approaching the fire to add fuel or cook. The area may need to be extended if there are potential hazards for tripping or other natural features.
  • an outer boundary around the seats or benches, at least 1m wide and with entry and exit points to the fire area, ensuring consistency and making the fire easier to manage.


Safety is paramount, so groups need to have current insurance, covering all participants, as well as appropriate First Aid equipment and training (see column). Safe working strategies and procedures form an important part of the Forest Schools training. Forest Schools practitioners are only deemed competent to manage such activities as lighting fires after their Forest Schools assessment week.

It is the responsibility of the Forest Schools Level 3 practitioner to write site-specific safety procedures, demonstrating that all possible hazards are covered. Procedures for good practice include:

  • Have available a fire bucket with clean water, fire blanket, fire extinguisher, fire First Aid kit, fire retardant gloves and a general First Aid kit.
  • Designate entry and exit points from the fire working area.
  • Mark the direction of travel around the outside of the benches or logs.
  • Tie back long hair and toggles and the like on clothing.
  • Allow a maximum of four people in the fire working area.
  • Always adopt the respect position (kneeling on one knee) when around the fire, whether one is feeding, tending or cooking.
  • Keep the fire working area clear of all resources, bags and equipment except for the fire safety equipment or resources used in the activity.
  • Have the fire gloves, bucket, first aid kit, fire blanket and fire extinguisher within arm's length of the Forest Schools practitioner by the fire circle.
  • Ensure all First Aid equipment is current and up to date - extinguishers and First Aid items do have an expiry date.
  • Always use the fire glove when feeding or tending the fire.
  • Ensure any cooking pans or kettles are placed on a flat surface.
  • If you have to extinguish the fire at the end of the session, pour water from the outside of the fire and work your way in, in a spiral towards the centre. When you think that the fire has been extinguished and the grey ash has turned black, place your hand about 5cm above the fire area to check if it is still generating heat. If so, pour on more water.
  • Always have a qualified Level 3 Forest Schools practitioner leading and present, who has up-to-date Forest Schools ITC First Aid training (see below).


In every session leading up to lighting a fire, Forest Schools practitioners should familiarise adults with the procedures and teach the children all the safety rules.

This repetition, week after week, ensures that those supporting the children are competent and knowledgeable about the processes and that the children themselves become unconsciously competent in managing themselves. It is only through continual repetition of specific techniques that the skills can become effective, polished and automatic.

Forest Schools practitioners should never undertake a fire-building session until they feel confident that they can manage the group and that the children can keep themselves safe and follow instructions in the case of an incident or accident.

Strategies and the time spent on them will depend on the individual programme and children involved, but here is one example for preparing children for building fires.

Week 1: Show the children the fire area, the entry and exit spots, the direction of travel around seating, and how to step over benches or walk around the bench and seat themselves. Walk back around the fire area to the exit point.

Week 2: Repeat above, but organise a drink and some fruit before exiting the area.

Week 3: Repeat above, but have a drink, fruit and a story before exiting the area.

Week 4: Repeat above and organise a drink, fruit, story and game within the area. For example, ask the children to stand behind seating, then ask children with blue trousers/red Wellingtons/a hat/etc to move in the designated direction around the outside of the benches and back to their place. Take note of any hazards. Exit as above.

Week 5: Show the children how to identify dead wood (it will snap easily) and where to find it. Collect kindling and wood to fuel the fire in varying sizes, lay them out in size order, photograph them, then store them in a dry place. Discuss and practise fire safety procedures.

Week 6: Practise safety procedures and the routines introduced in Week 1. Show children how to kneel and get up easily from the kneeling position. Prepare a waffle lay (see picture). First show the children the fairies' blanket (cotton wool pad) and the dragon's sneeze (fire striker). Open and fluff up the cotton wool pad, then place it on to the waffle lay. In the respect position, strike the fire striker away from you and towards the cotton wool pad. Count in seconds how long it takes for the cotton wool pad to burn to nothing. (By knowing how many seconds you have before the cotton wool pad burns out, you can begin to judge how soon to start adding the kindling).

Week 7: Ask the group to demonstrate the safety aspects of entering and moving around the fire, and ask questions about what to do if their clothing catches fire. As in Week 6, prepare the fire and light the cotton wool, but this time add your kindling to build up your fire lay to the required size.


Forest Schools ITC First Aid is a comprehensive training programme for practitioners, covering children from 12 months and all adults involved in a programme (including parents and volunteers). It was developed by Archimedes Training in partnership with ITC First Aid and Andy Forsyth of Adventure Education Training (AET). Both Archimedes and AET have ten years' experience of working and delivering Forest Schools learning. For more information, contact: andy_forsyth@hotmail.co.uk.


CASE STUDY: Forest Schools Birmingham & Midlands

Our risk-averse society, with its concerns about health and safety regulations, means children have little opportunity to develop their own sense of safety and risk awareness. At Forest Schools Birmingham & Midlands, we believe that this lack of ‘adventure’ makes children more likely to put themselves in dangerous situations, so we always work towards including fire in our programmes, says director Afric Crossan.

A typical programme offers half-day weekly sessions over 12 weeks (one term) and operates with low adult:child ratios to ensure that all children are well supported. Practitioners have a skeleton plan for the programme and each session, but the emphasis is on creating a child-led environment, with the practitioner adapting the session to the flow of where the children is compelled to explore. Our programmes often involve children who have been identified as in need of nurture and so the primary focus it to build their overall confidence.

Teachers tend to shudder at the mention of using fire as part of their school’s forest schools programme. However, it takes very little time to bring them on board and they quickly understand the benefits that it brings for children.

I love using fire with children because it creates a simple sense of well-being that is rarely found in today’s society. Fire features in our daily lives, through cooking, heating and the like, but it’s rare for children to experience open fires, and there is something hugely primal and alluring about sitting around a camp fire, cooking and sharing stories.

We introduce children to the various aspects of building a fire in the first five weeks and light one for the first time in week six. Initially, they learn about the rules of the fire circle (the fire pit and surrounding seats), including ‘Don’t walk through the fire circle’ and ‘Don’t approach the fire circle unless invited.

Next, the children learn how to collect natural materials to start and feed a fire. This task is age-appropriate, so nursery children would collect dead plant material (for tinder), stacks of dry, fallen branches and sticks. We also discuss what we could cook over the fire and plan a little menu for our fire-based sessions. By week six, we expect the children to feel confident in how to behave around the fire and to know what is expected from them.

We use metal strikers, which simply produce a spark, rather matches or lighters, to light a fire. It never fails to delight me when each child gasps in awe as the fire comes to life through a simple spark and the materials that they have collected!

Once lit, the fire will never be left unattended and at the end of each session the children help put out the fire. It is never left lit.

When using fire, the outcome is always the same, be it with tiny children or adults: people’s confidence visibly grows. This may stem from learning the skill of lighting a fire from scratch and unaided or simply, as in the case of very young children, from being trusted to sit around a fire and enjoy it. One of my most cherished memories is of a little girl from a nursery class telling me that she had stopped her father putting petrol on a bonfire because it was dangerous. If only all our children were so wise and aware of the consequences!

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