“We want to help children acquire the strength to think and act for themselves in any situation.”
Producer Ryuichiro Sakino of the forest nature experience museum, Hello Woods, at Twin Ring Motegi in eastern Tochigi Prefecture explains the mission of the Child Leaders Summer Forest Camp held here every year.
In this program, children in the fourth through ninth grades get to experience camp for 31 days and 30 nights. Meal preparation and other chores are left up to the children. After being taught the dangers and proper use of tools, they are left to face various challenges such as starting a fire without a lighter or matches and dressing a fish with a knife.
“The children usually stand about leisurely at first when they have problems getting the fire started,” said Sakino. “When they realize that the staff really aren’t going to help them, they start to feel a sense of urgency that there will be nothing to eat if they don’t do something. Then, after they become frantic and try all they can, the fire gets lit. The important thing is the children must really believe that they have to do it themselves. Over the past 10 years, there hasn’t been a single case where the children couldn’t get the fire going.”
Fire and knives certainly have their dangers, but Hello Woods takes the view that simply avoiding danger is not in the children’s best interests. It is the same concept as a wooden deck on top of a bluff with no railing. Some adults say this poses a safety problem, but if there is no handrail the children will become aware of the border between safety and danger on their own, and learn to pay attention so they will not fall over the edge.
The motorcycle school, located adjacent to the racing circuit, is a unique experience that only the Hello Woods camp can provide.
“They start by learning the structure of motorcycles, and finally get to ride a motorcycle around the circuit by themselves” said Sakino. “It’s important for children to experience the speed of the motorcycle while they’re still young. If you fall once you’ve built up some speed, it hurts. While experiencing mobility, we want them to learn the dangers and the convenience of tools that humans have created.”
In the last phase of the camp, the children walk from Hello Woods to Oarai Town (Ibaraki Prefecture) and back again, a distance of about 100 kilometers. M r .Makoto Wada, who has been involved as part of the staff since the very first camp, describes this 100-kilometer walk.
“The children are divided into six-member teams, and move toward their destination with nothing but a map and a compass. Some teams even head out in exactly the wrong direction. Each team has a support staff member, but they don’t point out any mistakes. They walk together with the children in the wrong direction. That’s because it’s important for the children to come up with their own solutions when they notice their mistakes.”
Teams that take a roundabout route may grow tired and argue, but that is also a good opportunity to learn teamwork, cooperation, and planning. Parents have commented on being surprised to see how much their children had grown by the end of the one-month camp.
“My hope is that the children who have taken part in the camp will someday help run the camp as support staff. I think the camp will only be complete once we have conveyed the significance and importance of lighting a fire to the next generation.”
As they spent more time with the children, Sakino and Wada, and staff members, have come to believe that it is important that children come into first contact with nature at a younger age for the development of their minds and bodies. So they developed a oneweek long version of the Child Leaders Summer Forest Camp for children in the first through third grades, and a Healthy Toddlers Camp for even younger children and their families.
Hello Woods also holds a variety of programs for adults. One popular program is a workshop on the felling and skidding of trees. It was originally designed for adults only, but adults with children are now also welcomed. The reason for this change in policy is that inter-generational communication is essential for the future of society.
“Farming families have had problems finding successors for a long time” said Sakino. “The grandfather was a farmer, but the son became a company employee, so the grandson has no experience— he doesn’t even know how to transplant rice seedlings—so he gives up farming. That sort of story is common all throughout Japan. The truth is that there’s work in farming and forestry that even children can do. Long ago, children learned by helping their fathers and grandfathers with their work. Today, people are still working hard in their 50s and 60s, but if the work isn’t taken over by the next generation, then in 100 years there will be no farming villages or forests to protect. The traditional communication across generations is important for Japanese society.”
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