I don’t like buzzwords. Who does, really? “Primitive Skills” has all the makings of a buzzword- it’s catchy, it sounds sexy, it makes you feel “in” if you know what it means and “out” if you don’t. And it is used to mean all sorts of things. Heated arguments persist about the definition of primitive, and from what tradition or heritage said skills may have derived.
In spite of these problems, however, I haven’t found another phrase to capture the essence of the sublimely satisfying hobby that draws me. “Making things with my hands from natural materials”; “Connecting to the natural environment by learning the physical attributes of plants and animals for the purpose of utilizing them”; “The practice of learning some of the skills some of our ancestors may have used”… Nothing else really roles off the tongue. Some groups use the term Earth Skills or Bushcraft, but these have their own issues.
So, for the sake of simplicity, I will call the activities in this article primitive skills. If you have found yourself interested in primitive skills but felt intimidated, if you like the idea of your kids making things and being outside, I have chosen 5 activities that are great to start with. I have used these with success at various camps, homeschool classes, and primitive skills gatherings, and there are many more you can discover with a little searching.
They all require some amount of scouting and preparation, which is a rewarding part of the experience. The beauty of these crafts, in my mind, is that they become woven into the fabric of your lives, changing the texture of them slightly. You and your kids will need to tromp through the woods to find your materials, or set up a working area with a campfire, or watch a certain stand of plants until they are just ready to use. One day you will be driving by a pond and your kid will say “Look at that healthy cattail stand, there are tons of good reeds for mats!” Mission accomplished.
I have done burn spoons with almost every group of kids I’ve worked with. It doesn’t take much technical skill and its satisfying to take home a usable tool. However, there are a few factors to consider if you’re going to try these at home. First, as the name implies, this project involves fire. You and your kids will be using coals to burn the bowl of a spoon and knives to carve the handle. You may want to look through this checklist first. You will need:
1.) A safe place to make a fire where you can bank coals and access them easily.
2.) Confidence in your kids to be safe around a fire and handle hot coals, and possibly knives.
3.) Workable chunks of wood, preferably something soft like pine, fir or cottonwood.
4.) Several hours of working time, and plenty of patience ( you will be blowing on the coal to help it burn through the wood and it is a bit tedious- also smoky!)
5.) One or more small, relatively sharp carving knives
Of course, you can modify this craft for whatever level of assistance your child/ren need. For younger kids, I often carve the handle and outside of the spoon for them, and they just do the burning. Also, I usually retrieve the coals for younger kids. You may want to make a pair of wooden tongs or get some metal ones. If there’s a big group, I have a helper retrieve coals for everyone. This cuts down on chaos and the risk of accidents. This person also maintains the fire to make sure coals continue to form.
I cannot explain all the techniques here, so here is a link to a video that will go through it.
Cordage, like many handicrafts, is quite simple to learn and deceptively tricky to master. The basis for many fundamental tools such as rope, nets, snares, bow strings, even some types of baskets, it involves twisting various kinds of plant material around itself to make a cord. It tends to be incredibly strong and can be made as long and thick as you need. Common materials for making cordage include poplar/cottonwood bark, nettle, red osier dogwood, hemp dogbane, cedar, or almost any fibrous plant material you can find and peel into long strips. You will want to learn about the best available material in your area. Whatever the material, you will need to separate the outer bark from the inner, softer layer first. It is the inner, fibrous stuff you will be working with. The process differs slightly with different plant material and the specific methods you use. Again, a lengthy description is outside the scope of this article, and you will need to practice specific techniques for the plant you work with. But, here is a video about using stinging nettle, a plant common in most of the country.
Here is an online video on making cordage.
Weave a Cattail Mat
I have had kids as young as 7 really enjoy this craft. You can use a very simple weave that is easy to keep track of, and older kids or those with an artistic flair can add embellishments to the edges. The most involved part is gathering and drying the reeds before use, which is simple but requires adequate ventilated, shady space and frequent checking. However, it is very rewarding, giving the kids a fun venture out and the satisfaction of caring for important materials. You may want to research more about cattail as well, they have many uses for humans (including food) and unique ecology.
2 caveats to this article: it is not necessary to use screens for drying, a tarp will suffice. Also, the drying time varies greatly in a dry climate a week is plenty:
For the weaving method watch this Video
Practice a “Sit Spot”
The term sit spot comes from The Wilderness Awareness School, a wilderness school in Washington founded by Jon Young, but the concept is universal. To sit quietly in a natural environment, letting your senses do what they are meant to do; notice, observe, absorb. It’s a practice that has been fundamental to human survival- for how else can we gain the information we need to survive, about prey, predators, food and materials. But it is also fundamental to the soul. It connects us, weaves us into the fabric of the land around us, grounds us. You can start small, if your kids have short attention spans, and make specific goals (can you sit for five minutes and notice five things?) You can make it into a game. If you are able, its ideal to return to a specific place, like a safe haven, over time, to see what changes, what animals come and go, plants are grazed or trampled, or?? If committed to, it is a practice that can change a life- opening the door to the magic that is our planet.
Build a Debris Fort
This goes into the category The Wilderness Awareness School calls Children’s Passions- things that children love to do naturally. What kid isn’t thrilled by the idea of building a fort in the woods, especially if they feel it is a secret from adults? I have been honored by the privilege of access to many secret forts simply by helping to make them happen. But it is also possible to help kids find what they need to get started and leave them to it. Obviously, something that varies greatly with your particular ecosystem, you can use a fallen tree or large bent sapling as a starting point, and add structural beams topped with leaves and debris. You can weave large branches and use piles of leaves and even dirt to close the gaps. If you are in a mostly coniferous forest, as I often am, it is trickier, but you can make it work with piles of dry needles or fallen boughs. The kids will lose themselves in the passion of designing their special place, and if you have a group it is the perfect opportunity to practice teamwork. Often I have seen groups break into teams, each with a specific role. The one concept to remember is to focus on dead forest material as oppose to living, and steer clear of other animals that have made their homes there (especially the stinging kind!) Although improvising is the name of the game here, these videos can help you brainstorm:
I truly hope you have the opportunity to get out and try at least one of these activities. I’m certain you will find them as fun and rewarding as I have!