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Campfires and dangerous dens: simple pleasures for boys

October 28, 2014

When the boys were small, they were pleasingly uninterested in computer games. Even when their uncle gave them on old Playstation and some games which his son had outgrown, the boys left it all languishing in a shoebox after a couple of goes. I foolishly allowed myself a moment of smugness.

I can’t remember when the change came, but it was probably about two seconds after they went to play at a schoolfriend’s house and spent the entire afternoon with him glued to a screen, blasting monsters. A year ago we sat down for a family conference to reach a consensus on permissible screen time. The agreement worked well at first, but it’s amazing how minutes shrink in piano practice or French revision, yet stretch to extraordinarily languid lengths when taken up with zombie-killing on Minecraft. Thank goodness we have dogs to walk, or I sometimes wonder whether the children would ever get outside at all.

The trick is, of course, to order encourage them outside in the first place. As often as not, once out in the fresh air they decide to stay there after walking the dogs, to ride their bikes/ play on the swings/ kick a ball about. Some recent gifts have been invaluable in helping this attitude. My younger son was given an exciting-looking box by his Godfather last Christmas, which  proved to his delight to be a ‘Dangerous Den Kit’. It contains all sorts of things to give over-imaginative mothers the vapours: some lengths of rope, a heavy mallet, a saw, fire-lighting instructions and so on. Over a busy summer, however, the planned dangerous den never quite materialised.

An event at the start of September made all the difference. We hosted a historical re-enactment weekend inspired by the connection between a past laird and the American West (a long story worthy of its own post, so I won’t go into it here). Some of the re-enactors, members of the association of American Mountain Men, made a camp in our woods: an admirably simple set-up, with shelters made from canvas stretched over bent boughs and a campfire set in an earthen hollow, the fire started with flint and tinder. They are men with a deep knowledge and respect for the woods and the wild, whose survival skills fascinated the boys (and the adults too). At the end of the weekend, they asked if we would like the fire pit and shelter frames left up for the boys, and we jumped at the chance. A camp in the woods, made by real, live, buckskin-clad Mountain Men from the Rockies – how cool is that?


The Mountain Men were endlessly patient with the boys.

The Mountain Men were endlessly patient with the boys – and had seriously cool kit.


At odd moments throughout the autumn weekends, then, the boys have slipped off into the woods to tinker with their camp. The shelters have been re-covered with canvas and bracken, and have been reclaimed for the home country with a British flag on each. I have left the boys to it, determinedly not thinking about the fact that my babies were out there with a saw, a mallet, an excess of energy and a limited amount of common sense. Then a package arrived from the States: a flint and fire steel for each of the boys, a thoughtful present from one of the Mountain Men. Fire was all that had been lacking. Again, I decided not to interfere. Cue a blissful day playing in the woods, inspired by dreams of being a Mountain Boy.


A bracken-thatched shelter makes good camouflage

Having fun spying on parents from a bracken-thatched shelter


No harm befell the boys in their ‘Dangerous Den’, just a lot of fun. Towards the end of the afternoon, however, it became clear that we still have a looong way to go in the outdoor survival skills department. We had not made any tinder and, without it, the boys were unable to get a spark smouldering from their flints. A certain amount of adult intervention was required to revive the flagging spirit of the camp. Daddy set off with a box of matches (don’t tell the Mountain Men) and a packet of marshmallows, while I busied myself myself gathering some other essential provisions in the woods kitchen.,28.10.14-1


By the time I reached the camp a while later, it was a place of pure happiness. The boys and Daddy were half way through the packet of marshmallows, toasting them over a good hot campfire. From my basket I produced some windfall apples, a flask of hot chocolate and a sticky chocolate cake, which proved to be, well, the icing on the cake as far as morale was concerned. It was all we needed for a camp to become a feast.,20.10.14-2


The afternoon was mild and still, despite being mid-October. We sat around the campfire, toasting the last of the marshmallows over the embers and warming our hands on tin mugs of cinnamon-dusted hot chocolate. Above us, the sky in the clearing darkened as dusk fell. A skein of geese flew high overhead; from the bracken, cock pheasants crowed their evening announcements. A little breeze got up, blowing the woodsmoke about and sending sparks flying in the cooling air. We licked the last of the cake crumbs from our fingers before packing up and smooring the fire, covering it over with earth. Romantic though the idea of sleeping under the stars seemed, there was school to think about in the morning and warm dry beds on offer back in the house.,28.10.14-3


You just can’t beat food eaten outside, round a campfire, shared with people you love. It didn’t matter that we have not yet mastered the art of flint-and-tinder firelighting. As we set off towards the lights of home, my younger son could not stop beaming.

‘Can I tell you something?,’ he asked, pulling at my smoke-scented sleeve.

‘What is it, sweetie?’

‘This has definitely been my absolute best afternoon ever in the whole of my life – so far!’

And not a computer game in sight.


You might like On the Oregon Trail in Scotland, and more outdoor play for boys in The afterlife of an oak. and Last weekend of the holidays (with more cake).



19 Comments leave one →
  1. October 28, 2014 9:45 pm

    Applause (quietly not to disturb the forest creatures) That was the best day ever. We used to camp high in the mountains in the summer to escape the humidity and heat here. This post brought back all those adventures. Hope the boys decide to revisit the fun again

  2. October 29, 2014 12:59 pm

    Well done, all of you. How fortunate you are to have a forest right outside! My mother is still, at 84, a keen camper. I’m more the “let’s go back inside to nice warm beds” kind of forest-appreciator. I am very keen to check out your link to Oregon now!

    • November 4, 2014 11:15 pm

      We are indeed very lucky to be able to camp in the ‘wild’ just outside our door. The best of both worlds – and with a bit of Oregon thrown in too! 😉

  3. October 29, 2014 4:09 pm

    What fantastic fun. My boys often build dens in our garden or if we are out rambling in the woods but nothing of that magnitude or skill. They are quite keen on learning how to set fires but a) I don’t know if I can even do it and b) I am a little anxious as to what might occur if they obtain that skill. Maybe I should stop being a worry-wart, control freak mother for a bit.

    As for screen time, we strictly ration it. Our boys get an hour for two weekdays and two hours on a weekend. Sometimes it is longer if my husband and I are occupied and lose track of time but we try to keep it in check. We think video games are a positive but we limit them in order to ensure that our kids still do other things. It seems to work. Loss of screen time privileges is also a great threat to keep behaviour in check.

    • November 4, 2014 11:18 pm

      That’s pretty much what we allow in terms of screen time – though I must confess it seems to be relaxing a bit as they get older. I’m with you on the control freakery too. I think it comes with the mothering territory for many of us! I’ve managed to keep the boys away from matches up till now, and have brought them up with, I hope, a good awareness of the danger of fires, so they do now understand the need to think about campfire safety. Fingers crossed.

  4. October 29, 2014 8:57 pm

    Here’s to many more non-computer game adventures for your boys!
    Have they read ‘My Side of the Mountain’, by Jean Craighead George? It was my son’s favourite book – think Mountain Boy rather than Mountain Man.

    • November 4, 2014 11:19 pm

      Thanks very much for the recommendation, Linda. We don’t know this book, which I am going to hunt down now on their behalf!

      • Jenni permalink
        November 7, 2014 2:46 pm

        No, that was already Godmother’s idea! One of my favourite books as a child. Can I send if for Christmas? xo

        DB replies: What a lovely thought, Jenni! Thank you very much indeed. I will bags it to read second! Xx

  5. cath permalink
    October 30, 2014 4:15 pm

    This morning I first read this: ‘At a time when the British countryside is changing rapidly and finds itself in urgent need of safeguarding, it is more crucial than ever that children are allowed to forge a connection with it.'( Lucy Purdy, Children in the natural world, issue 9 July 2014, Earthlines). And then I found your blogpost. What a nice coïncidence and more important what a wonderful and exciting way for your boys to build a ‘nature memory bank.’

    • November 4, 2014 11:24 pm

      I’m glad to hear of such serendipity! As children we all have a need to connect with the wonders of nature, I think. I remember being fascinated by the soft bumps of moss on stone walls on the walk home from school, so one doesn’t have to leave town to learn to appreciate the natural world. Our boys, however, are very lucky to be growing up in a very rich natural environment. My walks with them always seem to be ‘nature walks’ without any planning: we identify leaves, notice the birds, collect nuts and little animal bones and feathers for the nature table. It’s such a pleasure to share it all with the next generation.

  6. Toffeeapple permalink
    November 1, 2014 2:18 pm

    Quite the best way to spend time, in my opinion. This took me right back to my Welsh mountains and my childhood, we were forever ‘up the mountain’ making dens.

    • November 4, 2014 11:25 pm

      Sounds brilliant. I used to spend the summer holidays in the fields beyond my house, sketching ponies and having sandwich-fuelled ‘adventures’ with my best friend. Happy days.

  7. Denise Homer permalink
    November 1, 2014 3:56 pm

    What a great piece on creating memories, encouraging nature awareness and self-sufficiency. A wonderful confidence grows when you have basic outdoor survival skills. I’m hoping the boys will keep exploring. They are fortunate to have parents who give them space yet step in as needed to create a perfect day.

    • November 4, 2014 11:28 pm

      Bless you, Denise. I have to grind my teeth to stop myself over-managing sometimes! The worry gene can go haywire if I’m not careful. It is a lovely feeling, though, to risk stepping back and letting them get on with it – and then seeing how happy they are. We all learn something.

  8. Mary K. in Rockport permalink
    November 3, 2014 9:57 pm

    Is “smooring” a particularly Scottish word? I have only seen it here – and in the Outlander novels.

    • November 4, 2014 11:31 pm

      Oh, yes it is a Scots word. Actually I wondered if anyone would ask! It means to cover over the fire for the night, keeping it smouldering for the next morning; so in fact I have not used it quite accurately, as we made sure to put our campfire right out. It’s just a lovely descriptive word though!

      The TV adaptation of Outlander was filmed partly in our area last year. I’m hoping I might be able to catch it on British TV eventually – it would be fun to see if it lives up to the hype!

  9. November 21, 2014 10:47 pm

    What a lovely post. I can feel their enthousiasm! Smooring seems to have a kind of pendant in Dutch with “smoren” which means stewing.
    I used to be indifferent to camping until my husband took me to Canada and we went for multiple day hikes with just our back packs and a lightweight tent. Waking up with a view of the pacific and the whales swimming by makes up for the loss of comfortable beds and bathrooms….

    • November 22, 2014 6:35 pm

      Thank you, Diana. I’m always interested to hear of similarities between languages: the common Germanic roots of English and Dutch must make for many related words.

      Your camping trip sounds like a dream. It is one of my ambitions to visit the Canadian Pacific coast!

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