Playing During Pandemic – Part Six – Fire

In this post, I will be somewhat provocative to illustrate some of my key points of this series. You may think that it is crazy to advocate for kids playing with fire, especially in the backyard, but I think that you will see that it is actually a great idea. Your concern is safety, and rightfully so. What’s one of the main skills you hope your children will learn? Safety, right? The other ability that they may gain during sheltering in place is learning to be self-motivated and deeply engaged. Playing with fire is a hot ticket to achieve both goals. Here’s how.

First, the preparation. Your shopping list should include; marshmallows – both sizes, gram crackers, toothpicks, and wooden matches. Oh, and a pocketknife.  What? Now you want my kid to cut herself in addition to setting the house on fire! No! That’s not going to happen; you’ve got this.

I’m going to design this program for those kids who are at least a mature four-year-old. This project illustrates what we, in the early childhood education field, call “scaffolding,” where the core lesson is added to as children master the challenge presented. Following the “less is more rule,” start by giving out only a handful of marshmallows and some toothpicks. This will trigger the construction phase. Wait until this has run its course and then bring out some color markers. Wait for boredom to set in and add some paper, cardstock or cardboard. If the kids haven’t got the idea yet that this is fun, they can add what they want, suggest string, and let them know they are on their own.

Hopefully, you will have saved some of the large marshmallows because here’s where we introduce fire. Your parenting goal here is to provide as little help as possible. The first step is to permit the children to roast some marshmallows while not providing specific directions other than it has to be outside, and you have to approve the plan for how they will do it safely. That task should take at least a day. More if you can point out the possible hazards that need to be considered. Here’s where you can use some of the wasted marshmallows from the construction project by setting up an experiment to see how combustible these little sugar bombs really are. If you want to use the drama, this creates to get in some STEM learning, and you can talk about calories and sugar in foods and how their body burns them.

We have now set the stage for building a fire. This allows for more STEM with an exploration of combustion and the ratio of oxygen to fuel. You can illustrate this by having them drop a lighted match in a glass jar, covering it, and watching the flame go out. The next insight is to have them discover the concept of kindling temperature. This can be done by holding a burning match to a large piece of wood and seeing that it doesn’t catch fire before the match burns out. Now you can present the knife. The children can use the knife to whittle off small slivers from the wood to act as kindling is a fundamental life skill.

I prefer a Swiss Army knife, but there are many websites with other types suggested and good rules for using a knife. This is a great time to talk about maintenance and sharpening, and I recommend adding a multi-grit diamond sharpening tool to the kit.

I think you can see where I’m going with this post. Each step in the program has a trigger, an experiment, and a product that leads to the next challenge. If you follow this approach, you should have had a month’s worth of engaging activities with a minimum of your time and almost no cost. It’s up to you and your child where you want to take this. I suggest that you can go next to making Smores and then to hotdogs on a stick. From here, the whole area of cooking opens up. There’s a whole world of doing solar oven backing that can be down with almost no supervision.

What this plan sets in place is a relationship between you and your child where you are the facilitator, and the child is the explorer. Once this dynamic is set in place, your child’s confidence and competence will blossom, and level of trust and mutual respect will become the norm.

Who knows, perhaps this one exercise will turn your child on to cooking, and you will have real help in the kitchen. See? Playing with fire can be a good thing.

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