To Build a Bonfire: Exploring the Why Not the How

Written by Mike Larson
    Tuesday, 22 January 2013
To Build a Bonfire: Exploring the Why Not the How

The best birthday of my life was when my parents let me host my first co-ed party in our backyard. It seemed as if everybody I knew came! My friends, who mostly lived in the city, were especially excited about the bonfire. Living in the country, my family had bonfires several times each summer, but to my city friends this was an entirely novel experience. The huge pile of brush and fallen limbs made a fire so large it hid the people sitting on the other side, adding a sense of intimacy to the conversations taking place around the perimeter. There is something about a bonfire that captures the human imagination. Gazing into the flames while sharing a conversation with your friends and loved ones is a unique experience - one that you probably have your own fond memories of.

Years later, I find myself living on a small urban plot in Bay View with kids of my own. Our children have never known country living, and the idea of a bonfire in the backyard is as foreign and exciting to them as it was to my city friends in middle school. When we go camping, I have a hard time convincing my boys that it's actually fun to set up a tent or prep the campsite, but they both come running once I say, “Who wants to help me start the campfire?”

Crouched down by the fire ring, I patiently demonstrate how to build a tipi or log cabin, instructing them about the importance of leaving enough space for oxygen to feed the flames. I show them the difference between tinder, kindling, and logs as they gather wood from around the site. Most importantly, I teach them how to be safe around the fire, and that fire commands respect - a lesson my parents taught me when I was young.

Enjoying a fire together can be an excellent way to teach children to have a healthy respect for fire, while allowing them to satisfy their curiosity in a supervised environment. It was a rite of passage when I allowed my 6-year-old to light the first match of our fire last year, and I've found few better ways to instill a sense of responsibility in my 10-year-old then by asking him to manage the fire and add logs while I attend to other work nearby.

Some of the most memorable and serious conversations my wife and I have had with our boys have been late at night around a fire. The flames draw their attention away from distractions, and burn away their self-consciousness so that they can open up and share their inner thoughts with us. It is amazing what they'll say in the relaxed environment of a strong fire.

I love my home and the city I live in, but sometimes I regret that these activities only happen once or twice a year for my children. I know that city ordinances against bonfires are there for good reason, but what a shame that our urban youth don't grow up with the same experiences I enjoyed as a child.

The next time you have the opportunity, I recommend teaching your kids how to build a responsible fire. This is an important life skill that will serve them well and you will cherish the time you spend together enjoying your creation. And don’t forget the s’mores!

Need a refresher on starting a fire yourself? I would recommend starting here.


At the Urban Ecology Center, we specialize in providing authentic natural experiences for kids in the city. There are many opportunities to enjoy a fire without having to drive far out of town.

Campfire at our Hoot in the Night Event

• Bring the family and join us every Saturday this winter for Stories in the Tipi, which takes place around a fire.

• Attend our Hoot in the Night family fundraiser for a night of fun activities, including a campfire and s'mores in the park.

• In Washington Park, we will have a bonfire at our upcoming Winterfest- potentially one of the best events of the entire winter.

• Bundle up your family for sledding or a hike in the woods, then warm up by the wood-burning stove in our comfortable Riverside Park living room. Enjoy fair trade/organic hot cocoa, tea and coffee. And impress your kids with knowledge of how our EcoFan works, despite having any wires or plugs, by reading about it here.

Mike Larson

Mike Larson

Mike is a happily married man living with his family in Milwaukee. As a young child he spent days playing along the banks of the Rock River, fostering a love for nature which eventually led him to study biology and pursue a career with the Urban Ecology Center. He enjoys connecting people with nature through his role as the Community Programs Manager. He hopes that the work he does can help make it possible for his two sons and other kids in Milwaukee to grow up with similar experiences to those he had as a child.


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