Bushcraft: Outdoor Learning

Kids these days, with their iPads and earbuds… Well, back in my day we used to go outside and use our imaginations. Cliché I know, but it does beckon an important consideration: Does the difference in hobby actually change the outcome? Many would argue that it does, citing a growing body of research exploring the many pros of hands-on learning and decision-making activities. Personally, I never thrived in typical classrooms. So much of the standardized droning was too unrelatable, but having hobbies outdoors kept me sharp nonetheless. 

For me, the practice of bushcraft embodies the fundamental nature of being human. Bushcraft activities include fire making, food collection, tool making, shelter construction, and pretty much anything you can do with a knife, hatchet, and your hands in the wilderness. Although it sounds like survival at first, many would go so far as to call bushcraft an evolution of the practice. While bushcraft encompasses many trees of learning and utilizes a plethora of skills, it is very much a philosophy of self-reliance.

A central element of the bushcraft philosophy is an appreciation of nature and desire to be outdoors. In a blog post on Survivology101, author Norseman compared survivalists to mechanics and bushcrafters to engineers. He explained that a survivalist aims to fix the situation and get back to civilization alive while a bushcrafter seeks to create something that makes their time in the woods more enjoyable.

It goes without saying that often the best mechanics are engineers and the best engineers are mechanics, but you get the point. 

Disengaged Learning
According to a study conducted in 2015 by the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), four out of five US households own a dedicated video game system. They estimated that 155 million Americans play video games and that 42 percent of Americans played video games regularly. According to the ESA, the average gamer is 35 years old, only 12 percent more likely to be male, and on average has been playing video games for around 13 years. Their study suggests that people who play video games often decrease time spent doing other activities like watching TV and movies or going to the theater.

While the ESA did not include going outside in their comparison of activities, the Dirt is Good (DIG) Campaign conducted a study in 2016 alleging that children worldwide are spending less time outside than ever before. In fact, the DIG study found that while one third of children were spending 30 minutes or less a day outside, one in five children spent zero time outside. Put another way, they spent 100 percent of their time in the house. The study also found that 97 percent of parents were concerned that the lack of outdoor play will negatively affect their child’s learning.

Conversely, the nonprofit Resource Area of Teaching (RAFT) produced an online brochure, “Bridging the Engagement Gap with Hands-On Teaching,” exploring why students between kindergarten and high school lose their love of learning. Put simply, children are feeling disconnected from the real world in the modern classroom. 

The RAFT brochure cites a number of studies supporting the value of hands-on learning in fostering knowledge retention, critical thinking skills, and enthusiasm for learning. Clearly bushcraft isn’t the way to fix all problems in the school systems, but it did provide me with an outlet when the high school blues struck.

Although we just called it ‘going in the woods’ at the time, my friends and I would head off after school with a few simple supplies – usually some rope, a saw, hatchet, a knife, sometimes a shovel – and pass the day building makeshift shelters, following animal trails, fishing, and making our own entertainment. I would say that in doing those things purely for the love of it, connections were more easily created between classroom rhetoric and the activities in which I engaged.

Ingenuity and Fascination
Since those gilded years, the things I like to do in the forests have changed, but the sense of place hasn’t. For me, this is the key to bushcraft. It’s not so much about going out to do this or that, but to be totally comfortable in the bush. It is the ingenuity to work with whatever is at hand to make your experience a productive one.

Fascination is also an important aspect of bushcraft. Many of the skills and techniques utilized by bushcraft enthusiasts are derived from indigenous practices and archeological information on how people survived when that entailed more than a trip to Walmart: things like food preservation without ice or salt, or even starting a fire in the snow.

Some people thrive on the ability to live without the assistance of modern amenity to the point of obsession. While they may build an entire homestead on the back 40, plenty of folks consider a few hours of spoon-whittling with the kids and fire to be enough bushcrafting for one day.

Bushcraft is a great solitary activity, but sharing and learning from others is what makes it a community. Often the best way to learn advanced techniques or just figure out where to start is with a class. In recent times, with heroes like Les Stroud, Ray Mears, and, though sensational, Bear Grylls paving the way, survival and bushcraft schools have begun popping up all over the US.

Here in Corvallis, organizations like Coyle Outdoors, in collaboration with Parks and Recreation, offer outdoor and survival skills classes and camps for children. A number of certifications and classes, many aimed at leave-no-trace camping and wilderness survival skills, are available for adults in Corvallis through Oregon State’s Adventure Leadership Institute. 

However, for me, the most important part is just getting outside, trying a new technique, and imagining that I am capable of developing everything needed to survive without Safeway and Home Depot. In essence, bushcraft draws on what made us human in the first place – learning from nature, to perfect our existence within it.

Like the North American Bushcraft School says on their website, “these skills help us to understand the impact of our lives on others.”

Check out www.coyleoutside.com/ and recsports.oregonstate.edu/ali to learn more about our local programs.


By Anthony Vitale