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Friday, February 15, 2013

Why I build fires.

Each day we meet for Forest School, we make a fire.  It is a warm and welcoming ritual in the snowy, deep winter of central Vermont.  


But I have to admit, I wasn't always so keen on having a fire.  The pre-fire logistics of gathering kindling, requesting firewood donations from parents, checking the weather forecasts for wind and snow and rain all seemed too daunting.  Plus, with my poor circulation, the thought of having to take off my expedition-style mountaineering mittens to start a fire seemed worse than sitting for a few hours without a fire!  I would relegate the fire responsibility to my co-leader and supervise free play and tell stories instead. 

But earlier this week, when my co-teacher offered to join the group for free play, I somewhat ambivalently accepted the role of "Fire Tender."  It was a relatively warm day for mid-February (mid-20 degrees F) and Zach had already started the fire.  All I had to do was add more wood and stir the coals when the fire started to dwindle.  The crackling fire and the sounds of children laughing and shouting in play was comforting and I found a pleasant rhythm to my task.  I came to appreciate that task of tending fire really requires one to cultivate tenderness - attentive, patient, alert and observant.  In essence, being with the fire was quite similar to how I strive to be with my students.  The hour of tending fire passed surprisingly quickly, interspersed by visits from children to warm their hands, dry their mittens and share an interesting observation, and there was a welcoming fire for our end of the day Thanksgiving circle and closing rituals.  

This afternoon was a pivotal moment for me.  I used to skeptically approach fires as something too "crunchy" for me and a practice that was too time consuming to meld with my teaching style.  But I have really come to appreciate the immeasurable value of teaching with a fire.  

After going over some basic safety expectations with your fire guests, the fire is an amazing management tool.   The students naturally gravitate towards it, they are focused and thoughtful around it.  We eat lunch around it, share stories while gazing into its depths, and have it as a gathering point to return to after play and exploration.  

There are countless science lessons that flow from it. Hello, states of matter!  Not to mention cooking, change over time, social studies, tool use, and the list goes on.  It is fun to see what these kindergarten and first grade students know about fire and what preconceptions they have about how things burn and what the difference is between steam and smoke.  I am lucky enough to have colleagues with myriads of experience teaching with fire and who have created lessons involving safe practices with fire.

Plus, the very act of gathering around a fire is powerful and is something that has been practiced for centuries. In a culture that is ever-more focused on deriving pleasure from staring at screens, there is something peacefully rejuvenating that happens when you're staring into a fire with beloved students and colleagues. 


  1. I so enjoyed this piece and then, a moment later, read the post for the day from Writers' Almanac, also all about humans and fire (http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/?elq=205709e2b240476ba98fef141f3e0f73&elqCampaignId=808).

    1. Thanks for sharing that link! What an elegant poem, and a fun coincedence of fire-related writing.