Barbie is Dead!

“One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.”

Nature empowers females (Notice that we call her Mother Earth, not Father Earth.). Although there are certainly laws of nature that must be “obeyed,” we generally don’t think of the planet in paternalistic terms. It’s difficult to behold the abundance of life brimming forth from every nook and cranny of this bizarre space rock and not feel the power of the womb, and realize that the forces at play are the maternalistic ones of nurturing, caring, and giving.

Every time a parent gives us feedback about how their daughters come home from our programs more animated, capable, and confident from climbing over rocks and roots, getting dirty, carving with knives, making things with their hands, learning about plants, and all the other things we do out in the woods, it is a truly heartwarming experience. We live to receive emails like this:

So proud of my daughter, Sophia. She started off the week not sure if she wanted to go to Ancestral Knowledge Wood Wise I Camp, anxious at first that she was the only girl until a few more girls showed up. She came home every day with a layer of dirt and a smile on her face. Today she was so proud that she had earned her bead for going out in the woods alone, sitting quietly for half an hour, and observing animals. I’m grateful to the young women who were her role models as counselors this week. Sophia seems stronger and more confident. Ancestral Knowledge Camp seems to be an effective counter to princess culture. (See Let’s hope she carries these lessons with her. Wood Wise II is next week! She is on her way to becoming a strong young woman. Thank you!”

All that being said, it’s important to keep a balanced perspective and remember that our young men face plenty of their own challenges in the modern world. In an age where the masculinity of our young people is pathologized, criminalized, and medicated out of existence, time in nature is more important than ever for all our children, regardless of gender. Just like our daughters need Mother Earth to bring forth their strengths and cure them of timidity, our sons need Her to teach them lessons of empathy and connectedness.  Wild nature is the perfect antidote for Ken, too. Plastic people don’t seem to fare too well out there, and good riddance.

Teaching Kids to Love the outdoors during Winter time!


Teaching Kids to love the winter

Teaching kids to love the winter is not that hard. We at Ancestral knowledge have been guiding children for over ten year in winter camp outs and outdoor activities. Most kids naturally love playing outside no matter what the weather. When given the chance children learn not to fear the cold. Here are some wonderful tips that will help kids learn to love the winter weather:

1. Make it fun
If it not fun and rewarding chances are that they’re not going to be interested. Most all kids love to play on ice puddles, built snow shelters, go sledding, have snow ball fights, play with ice icicles, snowboard and ski.

2. Play with Friends
To help motivate your child it helps to invite a few friends over. They can do all types of fun outdoor activities together that they will enjoy.

3. Appropriate winter clothing
Good winter clothing allows kids to be comfortable. Along with a winter jacket and snow pants I recommend; boots, socks, gloves, and hat to keep kids warm. We encourage all our students to have extra wool socks and gloves and always carry an extra blanket to help warm kids up.

4. Celebrate the fun and excitement at the end of the day
Celebrate the cold and honor your kids for braving the winter weather. It is important to recognize winter conditions can be challenging and you can help them problem solve the challenges of winter weather.

5. Participate in outdoors clubs or outdoor winter programs
Outdoor clubs, winter hikes and wilderness youth programs with expert instructors are a great resource in helping your kids to develop a love for the winter. These outside programs teach kids fun and exciting winter activates that parent don’t often know or have the time to teach.


Are you Prepared to Get Out and Play this Winter?

We encourage everyone to get out and enjoy the outdoors during the winter time.  However everyone responds to cold temperatures differently. Keeping feet, hands, and clothing dry is very important because toes and fingers are most susceptible to damage from the cold. Whenever possible carry an extra pair of socks in case your feet get wet and a couple plastic shopping bags to put over the dry socks to avoid the boots saturating the dry socks. Wet feet, hands, and clothing need to be addressed in a timely fashion because wet clothing will cause you to lose warmth. If you get wet its best to get indoors or change those layers. If that’s not possible build a fire to warm up and dry out those wet clothes.  Being prepared and dressing properly will allow for hours of winter fun and exploration!

The follow descriptions will help you dress for various cold weather conditions.

The Base Layers – The first layer of clothing closest to the skin should be a type of long underwear or base layer. They should be lightweight, comfortable and cozy. Try to avoid cotton because it holds moisture and can become heavy and cold if wet. Wool or synthetic blends of clothing are the best materials. You’ll find long underwear available at various prices and styles. One trick is to use synthetic sweat pants or tights if you don’t have a base layer available.

The Extra Insulation Layers – The insulated layer of clothing is worn over long underwear for extra warmth. Materials such as a fleece jackets or wool sweaters are great. Again avoid cotton if you can because its fibers soak up water and become heavy making you feel wet and cold. During the coldest temperatures multiple layers may be necessary.  The best thing about layering is that you can add or shed a layer depending on your comfort level.

The Outer Layer (Outer winter coats and Snow pants) – The outer layer or shell should be waterproof, providing protection from wind, rain and snow. Waterproof shells typically have minimal insulation so they can be worn over the inner layers without being too balky . You’ll find outer shells in both jackets and pants, making them ideal for a number of cold-weather activities. Your winter coat should have a hood, be wind-resistant, water-repellent and breathable. Down jackets, filled with goose feathers, are excellent for warmth but need to be protected in wet weather with a rain jacket.  Fleece-lined ski jackets are excellent also. One-piece snowsuits might be appropriate for kids who spend all day outdoors in the winter. Snowsuits are highly water-resistant and provide the maximum protection from the wet snow.

Winter Hats, Neck warmers, and Face-masks – Half of your body heat is lost through your head. Traditional scarves, neck warmers, hats and face masks help keep your face and body warmer by stopping valuable heat loss from the head and neck. Wool, synthetic or fur are the preferred materials.

Gloves and Mittens – Cold hands can ruin a day. It best to have water-resistant mittens, which keeps hands warmer than gloves.   Gloves, however allow for more dexterity. In wet snow or rain water resistant material is important. Fleece and wool mittens become useless when wet.  Wet gloves don’t keep hands warm unless you dry them out.  Insulating your wrists aids dramatically in keeping you hands warm. Old wool socks with the toes cut out and a thumb hole added make great wrist gators.  Wearing water proof mittens with a glove liner gives you the ability to have both warmth and mobility when needed.

Socks and Boots – Instead of cotton socks opt for polyester and wool-blended socks that keep toes insulated even when damp with sweat or wet from snow. You want waterproof or resistant boots. Make sure they are not too snug. Go up a size when buying winter boots to compensate for thick wool socks.

REI has a good reference page on layering.

Most of these items can be found at thrift stores. If you wish to purchase new items, REI, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Hudson Outdoor, Gander Mountain, and other outdoor and camping stores all sell these items. Target sells poly-pro long underwear in kids sizes.

Spirit of the Hunt Apprenticeship

The bow making is underway.  We are running at maximum capacity in both the Spirit of the Hunt Apprenticeship and the upcoming Self Bow Making workshop.

There is a great group of guys in the apprenticeship program who are eager to learn and working really hard at finding and following a single growth ring on their hickory bow staves. Several have moved onto the bow layout and everyone else isn’t too far behind.

We will start to focus on making primitive arrows.  We will start with harvesting arrow shafts and moving into the proper way to straighten each shaft for the truest flight.  In the end each participant should have three arrows in their quiver.

I am looking forward to getting the crew out into the woods and immersing them into the ebb and flow of the natural world. We will be tracking, trailing, and getting to know the deer we will eventually be hunting come the fall.

This is the first year of this program, so far so good.  The Spirit of the Hunt was created after running our pilot apprenticeship in 2010.  Starting in 2012 a youth version called the Hunters Rites of Passage program will be added to the schedule.  I feel this program will help our youth form a mutual respect for life and nature via the spirit of the hunt.  The life lessons found during the hunt are profound and endless.  Each journey into the forest awakens the deep connections we have to the web of life that are embedded in our DNA.


Wilderness Survival Weekend

We just finished our largest ever Wilderness Survival Weekend class, and from my point of view as an instructor it was a resounding success.  Our goal as instructors is always for our students to learn and practice physical skills, but also to find or recover new parts of themselves, and to develop new relationships with other people and the Earth.  On both counts this class was outstanding.

The large size of this group (16 students, 4 instructors) really pushed us to fit everything into the class, but also created a higher level of intensity and a more dynamic learning community.  In the end we covered the primary skills we set out to teach including nature awareness, shelter building and firemaking, and still had time to cover elements of water purification, trapping, hunting, edible wild plants and cordage.

Friday night as we sat around the fire several students asked about skinning and processing animals, and whether they would have the opportunity to learn that skill.  I dutifully scanned the highway for roadkills on the way to class but didn’t find any good ones, so assumed we would not.  Earth Mother, it seems, had other plans, as Saturday afternoon two students in the class discovered a young spike buck dead in the woods, from whom we subsequently harvested a beautiful hide that Hannah and I will be tanning this week.

Every student worked diligently all day Saturday on their debris huts, which were built in threes to share insulation on adjoining walls.  This was the first time most students had tried to build their own shelter and sleep in it, and impressively everyone did.  Shelter may seem like a simple skill, but those who have “slept” in a poorly designed one know otherwise.  Nonetheless, sleeping in your own debris hut is simply one of the most rewarding and empowering things a person can experience, and one of the very best ways to experience truly being close to Earth Mother.  Before bed the instructors shared a few stories of their successes and many failures, prepared some pine needle tea, and the group headed out to greet the night.

Sunday morning we cooked on the fire again and then focused on bow drill.  Quite a few people succeeded in getting a bow drill fire started, including several first timers.  More importantly, everyone learned and got several steps closer to the skill level they desire, which in the end is far better than any specific end result.

Finally, I want to commend the students in this class again on their outstanding attitude and spirit of teamwork and cooperation.  Working in small groups can be challenging, but I saw many friendships started and lots of laughter as I wandered between the debris hut sites.  When you’re used to living in a house with electricity, a toilet and refrigerator, being in the woods can always produce a little discomfort, but this class had an overwhelmingly positive attitude, which always makes for a better experience.  Can’t wait to do it again!

Ancestral Knowledge Battles Against Nature Deficit Disorder

Our main goal here at Ancestral Knowledge is to bring the inner-city youth back to nature through programs like the ancient skills demonstrations we have held at the Washington D.C.’s Capital Hill Day School and other youth focused programs.  In addition, we help maintain connections to nature with adults through our partnership with the Wilderness Survival program a Georgetown University.  And, have provided experiences to adults who have lost touch with their childhood memories of the outdoors and want to regain that healthy relationship. Our youth and adult programs are helping reduce Nature Deficit Disorder.  We have seen some of the results with the kids we have continual contact with and it is encouraging.

Nature Deficit Disorder?

Almost two years ago the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, hosted the National Dialogue on Children and Nature Conference. The focus of the conference was on saving our children from nature deficit disorder. You may have heard of this phrase before, it is the title of a book by Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder.  Louv in his acclaimed book argues that today’s children have lost their connection to the natural world because of the addictive character that the modern world of television, computers and video games has on our children.

Some of the actions, solutions, and opportunities that the conference participants suggested are still useful, but we have not seen much progress in making them reality other than limited research on the benefits of exposing children to nature.

Health-related actions: Conduct research on the benefits of exposing children to nature instead of pharmaceuticals; incorporate the health benefits of nature into medical and nursing school curricula; and encourage pediatricians to prescribe nature time for stress reduction and as an antidote to child obesity.

Education actions: Assure that every school utilizes nearby; offer students in-nature time during teacher in-service days; create new partnerships between schools, farms, ranches and public parks; establish a national Nature Bee; and ask each student to be personally responsible for one living thing.

Societal actions: Create a “Take a Child to Nature” day; persuade AARP to create a nature-mentor program; establish a child-nature impact assessment for all built environments; and engage religious organizations.

Locally, AK has been fruitful in establishing at least one of the possible solutions–ancient skills educational and nature programs–to local schools and universities. Parents can have a voice too by calling teachers, school boards, and congressional representatives to encourage more funding and focus on getting our children out in nature and, of course, signing up their children for outdoor experiences.

Let’s work together for a better future.

Skills Showcase: Wilderness Survival – Snow Shelter

This year has brought to the Mid-Atlantic Region what some would say is a “treat” and others a say its a “curse”.  I say its great if you know how to enjoy it.  Depending on where you live, we have been blessed with 18-30″ of snow.  Unfortunately with a broken leg I am limited to what I can do in this much snow.   Whether in the suburbs or the deep woods, it doesn’t matter what time of year it is,  you can practice, use, and test all sorts of wilderness survival and primitive skills.   Now its time for some winter survival skills.

I wasn’t about to miss out on the fun of a DC metro area blizzard, broken leg or not.  As the snow had reached a level of knee high it was time for the first winter survival test, “travel”.  My goal was to test out the snow shoes that my buddy made.  Andrew Pinger hand crafted these using ash splints and rawhide.  Having an air cast on my leg and no longer needing crutches gave me the courage to attempt a trudge across the tundra mile after mile.  Around 2am I decided to strap myself in to these handmade beauties and set out on my 1st winter adventure.

The streets were silent and the snow was gentle as I explored the vast and unpredictable concrete jungle.   As I made my way down the road I noticed that I was sinking in to the light fluffy snow about 8 – 10 inches.  Travel was a bit difficult but I knew it was better then sinking in 18 inches, which was proven later as I fell over and one of the shoes came loose making me plant a foot.  Another benefit of snow shoes is they keep snow from filling up your boots when you walk in the deep snow.  My short trek of 100 yards made it obvious that there must be different ways to make snowshoes for different types of snow types and conditions whether its fluffy, wet, or settled snow on which you are traveling.

As the storm continued I began shoveling my walks to avoid having to move copious amounts of snow all at once when the storm was over.  As I piled the snow in the corner of the front yard I knew I would be able to build a snow shelter using the piled up snow.   By the end of the storm I had collected a pile of snow that was about 12′ long 8-10′ wide and 5′ tall.  The next morning we would start to make the shelter complete.

How to safely build a snow shelter

  1. After piling up the snow let it settle for about and hour or so.  Settling time will depend on what type of snow you have and the location where you are building it.  You can pack the snow down to help the process along but its not necessary.  Once your pile is made, shape or sculpt the structure to have a nice even surface.  This will aid in keeping your wall thickness consistent throughout the construction.
  2. Once you have let the pile settle it is recommended that you push 10″-12″ sticks into the pile.  Make sure sticks are perpendicular to the surface of the pile.  I placed them every 14″ in all directions .
  3. Starting in the door way area begin to dig.  To avoid a cave in, work from the ceiling down.  Continue digging until you hit the ends of the sticks.  When when you are shaping the inside of the shelter make the sleeping area higher then the entrance.   The higher the better.
  4. once you get about half way through, go to the opposite side and start digging another small entrance.  This helps avoid moving snow twice as far.
  5. Once the inside is dug out, seal off the second opening leaving an arm sized air  hole.

When the shelter is complete you will need is a door.  If you can make the sleeping area higher then the ceiling of the entrance way, you will create an air lock, and you won’t need a door.  You will have to get creative on keeping the wind out and the warmth in.  I used a blanket as my door.  The temperature was 22 degrees outside and 40 degrees inside with one person inside.  With more people  inside it will be much warmer.

I will be adding an elk hide with the fur still on as the floor mat.  With a couple of soapstone oil lamps and my family kicking it inside, we are sure to be warm and toasty for our blizzard of 2010 abo family scrabble game.  I will let you know how it goes.

With another 15 inches of snow coming I will be able make it a more comfortable size inside for the family while increasing the height of the sleeping platform.

Get Dirty to Get Joy- Bacteria in Soil Acts as Antidepressant

Get Dirty to Get Joy- Bacteria in Soil Acts as Antidepressant
A bacteria found in soil called Mycobacterium has been found to effect the same neurons as Prozac, offering people a natural lift in mood. This is just one more great reason to get out in the garden and grow your own foods. Not a green thumb? Just spending time in areas with rich soil will allow you to breath in these great benefits. – Intelligentactile

Imagine: You’re feeling so depressed that you visit your doctor and request a prescription for a mood elevator. Instead of writing you a prescription for Prozac or a similar antidepressant, she advises you to get dirty. While you consider changing doctors, she describes how getting dirty changes your brain chemistry. The microbes in dirt, she says, tweak the same neurons that are stimulated by Prozac. Your options, she explains, are an expensive drug plus its possible side effects, or gardening, yard work, or a romp in the park. Your doctor, it turns out, hasn’t gone round the bend. She is actually up-to-date on the latest scientific findings about how the natural environment affects our brain function.

The dirt-and-Prozac connection surfaced a couple of years ago from Dr. Chris Lowry and his colleagues at the University of Bristol and University College London. They exposed lung cancer patients to a common, inoffensive microbe called Mycobacterium vaccae, found in soil. The patients unexpectedly reported increases in their quality of life, including a brighter mood. The researchers wondered if this effect was caused by stimulation of neurons in the patients’ brains that produce serotonin, a feel-good chemical.

Taking the next step, they broke up M. vaccae into fragments with sound waves and injected them into the windpipes of anesthetized mice. When compared to controls, the mice exposed to M. vaccae had more activity in serotonin-producing neurons and higher levels of serotonin in several areas of the brain. “[The bacteria] had the exact same effect as antidepressant drugs,” Dr. Lowry said. The scientists said that one might derive dirt’s benefit directly by rooting around in a vegetable garden, or by eating lettuce or carrots picked from that garden. Popular media ran with the findings. ”Is Dirt the New Prozac?” asked Discover magazine.

The dirt-and-Prozac connection fits with a recent idea in medicine called the “hygiene hypothesis.” According to this concept, exposure early in life to the bacteria, fungi, and viruses found in common, everyday dirt is necessary to stimulate our immune system. When children are exposed to the stew of microbes in dirt, their immune systems become stronger. The immune system also learns to ignore substances like pollen or the dandruff of pets, which can trigger asthma and allergies. Researchers have shown, for example, that kids who grow up in dirty environments such as farms have a lower incidence of infections, asthma, allergies, and eczema later in life, compared to kids raised in urban environments in which parents try to keep them squeaky clean.

For a century and a half we have waged merciless war on filth through public health measures such as public sanitation systems and water purification programs. These developments have been enormously successful. The increase in lifespan in modern societies is due largely to the reduction of death rates from diseases such as typhoid and cholera, which in nineteenth-century America were called “filth diseases.”

We have to wonder, however, if we have gone too far in our obsession with hygiene. Throughout our evolutionary history our ancestors lived in intimate contact with dirt, and its influence, we now see, was not all bad. We evolved in the outdoors, and we are beginning to glimpse the price we are paying for shutting ourselves off from nature.

Don’t worry. Nobody is suggesting that we never bathe or clean our bathrooms. Neither is it necessary to inject M. vaccae into our windpipe. If we merely go for a walk in the woods, grub around in our vegetable garden, or weed our flowerbeds, we get a dose of the good bugs simply by inhaling.

“Nature deficiency disorder” has been proposed as a term for the problems we create when we build a wall between the natural world and ourselves. I am highly susceptible to this malady. When I spend too much time indoors, I become increasingly moody and morose. There’s only one cure: take a hike, go camping, or root around in my veggie garden. These activities are more than a hobby; they have become an essential part of my life and an important element in my personal health plan.

What about kids? Not so long ago, play and getting dirty were pretty much the same thing — frolicking in a sand box, making mud pies, romping in parks. Now many parents are horrified by dirty play. Keeping kids spotless and unsoiled, however, may be setting them up for trouble later on, because without exposure to nature’s medley of microbes our kids can grow up with confused, weak immune systems. Can we rethink the prohibition on dirty play for the sake of our children’s health?

Antidepressant medication can sometimes be a treatment of choice. It can work wonders, and in some instances can be life-saving. But if your doctor advises you to get dirty instead of taking a pill to perk up your mood, don’t look at her strangely. Pride yourself on having a physician who is on the cutting edge.

Think of it this way: Have you ever seen an unhappy earthworm?

By – H. L. Mencken


Skills Showcase: How to Brain Tan Buckskins

  • Have you ever wondered “how did the natives make such beautiful and soft leather without all the chemicals?”  We will attempt to explain the process so you can try it at home.  We are assuming that you already posses the animals skin.

1. Fleshing- with a rib bone, leg bone or hardwood stick that has been carved and burnished, push all the flesh off of the hide. you need a smooth beam (log).  You can either lean it against a tree pinning the hide with the beam or lay it across the log pinning it with your body.

2. Dehair– this can be done on or off the rack.

  • Off the rack –  Soak the hide in a stream till the hair starts to slip on the neck then use the same technique as fleshing.
    • On the rack- Poke holes every 4 inches around the edge of the hide.  Make sure the holes are 1/2 inch in from the edge running parallel to the edge about 1/2 in length.  Stretch the hide tight enough using string through the holes and pulling the hide evenly so that is can dry out on the rack without any wrinkles.
    • once dry use a bone or stone scraper to remove the hair.  which leads into the next step

3.  Scrape or remove the grain – when the hair is gone you will see a peppery look to the hide.  This is hair follicles embedded in the epidermis (outer) layer of the skin.  This layer must be removed.

Scrape carefully till the dermis layer is exposed.  The skill will become fluffy like suede.  It is best to work in small sections or blocks 4 to 6 inches square.

On your first hide you will probably scrape so lightly that this will take hours or scrape so hard that you poke holes through it.  Either way, don’t give up, it’s all part of the learning process.  you can always tan another hide, right.

Be careful along the belly and inner thigh areas.  They tend to be the thinnest and easiest to bust through.

4. Membrane- once the dermis layer is reached turn the hide over and scrape the flesh side till it is fluffy as well.  This side doesn’t take as much scraping.  In both steps 3 and 4 work the center of the hide first and then do the edges.  I like to keep a two-inch buffer around holes and the edges, then come back and scrape those areas last.

5. Brain- take the animal brain(if you have it) and smash it up in warm water. about 1/2 gallon to 1 gallon is all you need.  If you don’t have any brains you can substitute with egg yolks (not the whites).  DON’T USE HOT WATER.

Soak your hide in the solution either by taking the hide off the rack and placing it in a container with the solution or use  something to apply the solution saturating the hide while it is racked.

6. Softening- once the hide is saturated and let sit overnight without drying out, you can begin to soften the hide.  the fibers in the dermis layer must be kept moving until the hide is completely dry.  Do this by re racking the hide ( if not still on the rack) and using a stick with a rounded smooth end.

Take the smooth end of the stick and push on the hide while sliding the stick across the surface of the hide.  When the hide is no longer cool to the touch then it should be dry.   You can soften off the rack as well but it doesn’t turn out as flat and smooth as one softened on a rack.

You should have a milky white soft and fluffy skin in your hands.  be careful not to get it wet or it will turn back into rawhide.

7. Smoking- First make the hides into a bag by either sewing or gluing the edges together,  Leave an opening about 6 inches around  in the neck area.  While sewing  or gluing the bag together, have a hardwood fire lit and burning.

Dig a hole about 6 -8 inches across and 1 foot deep.  Hang the hide bag upside down over the hole. Connect a skirt made of cloth or other hides to the neck.

Add hot coals only, no burning sticks to the hole.  Break up the punky wood and cover the coals

Stake or use rocks to hold the skirt down around the hole to funnel smoke into the bag.  Make sure that the punky wood does not flame up.  Add punky wood as needed to keep a heavy smoke generated.

Once the outside of the bags starts to change color (about 1 hour) turn the hide inside out and repeat. The longer you smoke the hide on each side the darker the color will be.  2 hours on each side turns out a nice dark color.

Once the second side is complete you can wash the hide and let it dry and you will have a beautiful piece of buckskin.  This process can be completed in just a couple of days.

We hope this post was helpful.  If you are a beginner seeking hands-on experience in hide tanning or other skills, please check out our Adult Workshops

Wilderness Skills Showcase – Shelter (Debris Huts)

Learning how to build a shelter is one of the most engaging skills for instructors and students alike. Few other skills under the “primitives” umbrella get you as much bang for your buck. The skill of constructing (and/or finding) a safe, dry, warm place to retreat should be a top priority for everyone, ranging from those who are very focused on emergency survival scenarios where the idea is to live through the immediate future and get back to civilization (protection from the elements is generally one of the first issues you want address) to those who are interested in longer-term wilderness living situations.

Volumes could be written about different styles of shelter, materials, etc. One of the most basic and frequently taught methods is a simple debris hut, which is essentially a framework of branches that can be covered and filled with layers of debris that shingle (on the outside) and insulate (on the inside). There are dozens of ways to tweak and customize this type of shelter, and it’s the type of shelter we teach most often. So for kids, what are some of the benefits to learning how to build shelter?

For one thing, it’s a skill that allows a wide range of ages and skill levels to tap into their powers of creativity and imagination. There’s a reason almost all kids love to build forts, and they’re all the better for doing it outside in the fresh air and sunshine instead of indoors where their poor little developing brains are bathing in the ambient noise of television commercials and the harmful compounds off-gassing from paints, carpet, and couch cushions. Building a shelter requires cognitive skills like visualizing, executing plans, problem-solving, and overcoming setbacks. Debris huts are relatively free-form, too. The sky is the limit in terms of finding new ways to fit the pieces together, find new ways to utilize the materials you actually have at hand in different situations, or add features like a lowered entryway that will keep your warm body heat trapped in the inner chamber, a fence of sticks at the base of your walls to trap slumping layers of leaves, or a lean-to/heat shield outside to protect a fire if you have one. The building blocks for shelter are accessible to almost everyone, with little skill or modification necessary. Sticks, leaves, and bark are laying everywhere at your feet, just waiting for kids to imagine and create things out of them, and shelter really helps people of all ages re-establish a creative connection to their environment.

Building shelter can also be a real ice-breaker for students who aren’t as comfortable in natural settings. Some kids are even squeamish about simply sitting in leaf litter or on the ground when they first find themselves in the great outdoors. Next thing you know, they’re having a blast working in teams to rake up giant piles of leaves (and jump into them), gather sticks and branches, and peel up dead bark in sheets. The trick is to take what would normally be a chore, and transform it into play. It can be a social activity where everyone collaborates, building up each other’s strengths and compensating for their weaknesses. Making a shelter really helps people get over any hang-ups and break down any barriers they see between themselves and the natural world, because before too long you’re covered with nature in the form of “dirt” and leaf duff, and, lo and behold, it’s fun. According to the hygeine hypothesis, getting all this crud on you is actually beneficial to your health and immune function, and missing out of the experience of slathering yourself in benign and beneficial symbionts (bacteria and other) can be detrimental.

At the end of the day, few things can make you feel as “at home” in nature as…well, making a home in nature. It bolsters confidence, beefs up critical thinking skills, makes people more aware of the utility and presence of natural materials around them, makes them more effective and clever at using those natural materials, gives people a sense of agency and capability in their environment, and can bring them together for a darn good time.