Opinion: On the Merits of Letting Kids Play With Fire

It teaches responsibility, safety, and confidence.


When our son was six, we began letting him play with fire. It made sense a few decades ago and I think it still does, but you be the judge.

Ever since he was a baby, our son had gone camping with us in southern Arizona. Even during lean years, such as when I went back to school, our family considered it cheap entertainment to take whatever was in the fridge, a box of shells and, for just a few dollars’ worth of gas — yes, that’s how many years ago this was — drive to what we called Camp Meager, in the Tortolita Mountains north of Tucson. The spot was a desert camper’s dream. The circular clearing next to the mesquite-lined wash was big enough for a few tents, a fire pit, and a regulation hopscotch arena. Large coveys of quail lurked in any direction you chose. We spent many evenings there with family and friends, eating roasted camp potatoes with our day’s take of mesquite-grilled quail.

At Camp Meager, our six-year-old was appointed official campfire-tender. He had conscientiously worked at mastering the skills required to build a campfire. (This was a kid who caught his first bass on a rubber worm at age three, but threw it back because it was too small.) Immediately upon our arrival, he surveyed the area to find the best location and assigned me the task of gathering sticks and twigs for kindling. I was up for the job.

He learned how to construct our cooking fire in the shape of a light bulb, with a round main pit and a narrow straight section where the grill would be placed over the coals. He carefully arranged the fire so the breeze could feed it without blowing smoke into the cook’s face.

Then the fun began. He would crumple three or four sheets of newspaper to support a soccer-ball-sized heap of tinder. This served as the base for a tepee of pencil-thin mesquite twigs, which was followed by thicker, longer pieces. A couple of openings were left for air to get to the tinder. Then came the part where even the most lenient parents might cringe: We let him start the fire. He used a disposable lighter to light both sides of the tinder, then sat back to watch his handiwork. From that point on, the job was just tending, poking, pushing to the center, and adding pieces of mesquite.

His favorite part — even more than the post-meal bonfire — was being allowed to poke the fire. He was aware that other kids would probably be scolded for playing with the fire, but he understood it was his job, and a serious one at that. One of my most vivid memories is the image of him crouching by the campfire against a background of a billion stars, mesmerized by the smoke swirling upward from the end of his poking stick.

It’s impossible to measure the positive effect this activity, as well as others like it, had on his confidence and sense of self-worth. We’re talking actual fire here — like running with scissors. Yet that confidence stayed with him long after we returned to civilization. It made a lasting impression on him that is still reflected in adulthood. That six-year-old is now a hulking 6-foot, 220-pound police officer in Kansas with a family of his own.

Looking back, my wife and I agree that our son’s fire-tending career was at least as rewarding for us as it was for him. It’s one of our sweetest memories, and it comes up occasionally when his family visits and we gather around the fire pit at home. But now, he’s the one gathering tinder and snapping twigs, while my wife and I kick back with a cold beverage, reminiscing about Camp Meager and watching our six-year-old grandson poke the fire.

Alan Crowe is a contributor to High Country News which produced and first published this story. Photo by Rudi Schlatte.

 

Showing 10 comments
  • Kevin
    Reply

    I agree that it is important for the young to learn about fires. I have noticed my kids and the nieces and nephews always wanting to play in the fire. The faster they learn the less possibility of injury or catastrophe. Being 6 years old might be to young for some children and not for others. The age should depend on the child and their parents.

  • The Woodsman
    Reply

    Yes- totally agree. Same goes for taking them shooting at an appropriate age (BB guns at age 8-10, .22s at age 12). When done properly, it removes the mystery and teaches them responsibility and firearms safety. 4H, YHEC and Scouting have excellent programs if the parents aren’t into it.

  • Brad
    Reply

    Most appropriate snd brings back memories of my childhood growing up in the Adirondacks.

  • Dave Lyle
    Reply

    This essay is a great read, and brings back many memories from my own childhood, and much of my adulthood as well. I loved being “out there” so much that I became a professional adventure travel guide for 32 years. But there’s another side to this story I would like to mention, simply because a child allowed to playing with fire without proper adult supervision or education can easily create a terrible and completely preventable disaster! I live in Moab and have made this my “home base” for over 40 years. A child of visiting tourists who wasn’t educated about proper management of fire and was not being properly supervised by the adults present set an entire river bottom along the Colorado River ablaze and subsequently burned down a treasured local historic landmark from 1919…the Dewey Bridge…first bridge in the state of Utah to cross the Colorado River! It was a wonderful old creaky one lane suspension bridge and the entire deck structure of hte bridge was wooden beams. It was completely destroyed by a child playing with fire, leaving only the old steel towers and dangling cables, supporting nothing, left behind. And as responsible as you obviously were with regard to teaching your child how to properly build, maintain and manage a fire, I just want to remind others that this is very often NOT the reality when families go camping, and that adults must exercise great care to be sure your kids don’t actually destroy the areas you’re all out there to enjoy! Somehow your story brought up that’d a number of other examples I have seen of “things gone bad” with fire. So please, everyone, be smart, pay attention, and make sure everyone is exercising great care when you’re using fire in the great outdoors. Thanks. Dave Lyle

  • Matt
    Reply

    Problem is the term “play” rather than as a tool, like a chainsaw or a horse. We as parents and grandparents should take every opportunity to familiarize our kids with fire in safe situations so it isn’t seen as a forbidden thing to sneak out behind the barn or in the basement to “play” with on their own. By giving them a familiarity and with the understanding that it doesn’t always do what you want, with unforeseen bad results, a lot like water and learning to swim.

  • Peter Hendrickson
    Reply

    Play is the work of youth. It is our job as adults to guide that play, and gradually remove the adult supports while monitoring the boundaries. I would add that the same ethic applies to “playing with” knives. Some time ago I would’ve said the same for firearms, reflecting my own loving instructors — Uncle Ed, Grandpa Tommy, BSA camp counselors, my HS and college rifle team “gunny” instructor. I’m saddened about the co-opting of a hunting and collecting organization by other interests peddling the toxic mix of fear and corporate profit.

  • Gnarlydog
    Reply

    It’s interesting to notice that nobody seems to view the use of campfire a thing that unfortunately has great environmental impact in this overcrowded world.
    Where I used to have no problems having one years ago I now no longer build one because most areas I visit are now overused and a fire creates too much of a mess for other to later be able to enjoy the same location.
    I have fond memories of sitting around the fire in the evening and enjoying the mesmerizing show but these days I can not do that in most locations (open fires are often illegal in National Parks) to then ruin the fragile campsites for others.
    Needless to say that established fire rings in managed campsites are a real pain to others when the smoke blows into their direction: I try to leave to city to enjoy clean air, not subject myself to worse air quality.
    However on private land away from civilization the campfire has still its place for me.

  • Randall
    Reply

    Absolutely agree that children should know how to safely use fire. Knives too. My 8 and 10 year olds have been using sharp knives in the forest since about 6 years old. The only time it has concerned me was when they brought friends along and they shared their knives to “make spears” etc and the other parents freaked out. They just assumed every kid learned how to use these tools safely… my bad. Funnily enough, neither of them have ever cut themselves. The only injury between us was when I cut myself when showing them “knife safety” true story… haha

    • Steve Casimiro
      Reply

      Hahaha.

      I had a knife from about age eight and that sense of trust and empowerment was amazing. The only time I cut myself was in Boy Scouts when attempting to carve something…I learned right fast that you carve away from the body and don’t get other fingers in the way.

  • MTFUNHAWG
    Reply

    Personally, I absolutely come quietly unglued when a gaggle of kids all poke sticks into a campfire and then proceed to take them out and wave them around until one of them dislodges an ember that falls into their collar and burns their hair and neck, or lands on their fleece pants and gives them a nice 2nd degree plastic burn. Couldn’t have seen that coming….huh? The poor branded whelp will then wail and wail while the grownups leap into crisis mode, and then the kid often can’t sleep for the remainder of the trip which often means the parents don’t get any sleep either. I was a guide for a long time and I’ve seen this happen pretty regularly when greenhorns get their families out for some QT in the woods, and like clockwork it is usually right after the mandatory s’mores. I know my kids can handle themselves just fine, but I don’t assume everybody else’s can.

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