As the child of left-wing, atheist parents I was never encouraged to attend Sunday school, and as the Brownies ran from the attached church hall that was out too. Desperate to find a club to belong to, I was overjoyed when a new group for children started up in my area. I joined the Woodcraft Folk straight away, to discover that despite the name there wasn’t a lathe or hacksaw in sight. That was the beginning of my love affair with the Woodcraft Folk, and now, over 25 years later, I am about to set up my own group.
In the beginning The Woodcraft Folk began in 1925 as a democratic alternative to Scouts. Founded by 19-year-old writer, Leslie Paul who had become increasingly disillusioned with the militarism of the Scouting movement he had been involved with, the group was originally run entirely by young people. The movement’s aims were, and remain; to encourage self-confidence, social activism, and to build a world based on equality, peace, social justice and co-operation. Given the latter it is hardly surprising that the co-operative movement got involved, donating money and resources to help the Woodcraft Folk grow—support that continues to this day. Funding also comes from grants, memberships, and the small amount given by each child every week.
“The well loved motto “span the world with friendship” is as relevant now as it was back then.”
Long before Scouts started allowing girls in, the Folk embraced children of any gender, race, creed, religion (including those with none) and ability. The well loved motto “span the world with friendship” is as relevant now as it was back then. Contrary to popular belief, the name has nothing to do with woodwork or tree hugging. It is derived from Ernest Thompson Seton’s beliefs about the importance of living as close to nature as possible. Seton, an author and wildlife artist, founded the Woodcraft Indians, a youth group which began in the USA and embraced a love of nature, based partly on Native American traditions and lifestyle.
Let’s get outdoors
Camping and a love of the outdoors are still vital components of the Woodcraft Folk; each group is encouraged to spend time camping and hiking. The inner city Salford group that I belonged to as a child gave some children their first glimpse of a life away from cars and houses through regular camping trips in Snowdonia and the Peak District. Breaking the Irwell Valley Way into four stages, we literally walked out of Salford and into the countryside, which for a group of children used to being surrounded by tower blocks and traffic was a memorable experience. Today, the Folk have indoor residential centres that can be used for trips away – ideal for those nervous about camping.
The group holds many affiliations to organisations such as the National Peace Council, the YHA, the Ramblers Association, and the Stop the War Coalition. Peace is a major concern for the Woodcraft Folk, who believe in being truthful with children rather than hiding the realities of war from them, encouraging them to make up their own minds. As a result they have been active in opposing the invasion of Iraq and other conflicts. Another pressing issue is the environment; and members are encouraged to think about their effect on the world.
Learning to co-operate
The Folk embrace individuality, and that extends to their pride in being a little bit different. Rather than letting the adults run the show, these youth groups encourage involvement from all members. A modern approach to society, the organisation demonstrates long standing dedication to world peace and sustainable living. But it’s the co-operation that really stands out. Woodcraft isn’t about winners and losers, it’s about learning to work together. Learning to find and utilize the talents of everyone involved and becoming aware that through doing that together we can change the world. One guiding principle of the Folk is “Education for Social Change”. This means encouraging children to believe they can change the things they want to change, create an environment they would like to live in and build a world according to the values they believe in. No doctrine is forced onto the children, they are encouraged to make their own minds up and draw their own conclusions. Woodcraft gave me the confidence to challenge discrimination and fostered the belief that if things are worth doing, they are worth doing well. By allowing members to question without fear of reprisal, and letting children draw their own conclusions on all manner of issues, groups are instrumental in the development of freethinking, open-minded adults.
“There is no official Woodcraft uniform, though children can opt to wear t-shirts and hoodies with logos designed by members”
Groups meet on a weekly basis, and are split into different age ranges: Woodchips for children under six; Elfins for six to nine-year-olds, Pioneers, which caters for children between 10 and 12 and Venturers for teens. Many members then go on to become District Fellows, who organize their own activities and often help with the younger groups. There is no official Woodcraft uniform, though children can opt to wear t-shirts and hoodies with logos designed by members. The activities vary between groups, but often involve singing, dancing, co-operative games, crafts, drama and discussions on a variety of issues global as well as local. Games are chosen for their co-operative nature, and winning and losing is actively discouraged. Some children initially find this hard to adapt to, but most find it fulfilling once they have managed to shake off the usual “play to win” attitude encouraged in our society. While the meets are organized by the adult leaders, children’s input is welcomed, and their ideas are often sought for topics, games and trips. As a teenager, my group of Venturers organised a visit from our local MP who sat and answered our questions for an entire meeting. Other highlights for me involved parachute games, Brazilian evenings, debates on all manner of topics, and lots of hiking! Now my aim is to create as many happy memories for my new group as the leaders gave me as a child.
With around 500 groups currently running around the country it shouldn’t be too hard to find one near you, but if you find there isn’t one then why not set up your own? If you take the plunge, you’ll receive lots of encouragement from head office, not to mention training materials, leaflets to raise awareness of the aims of the group, and a variety of other resources. They will also put you in touch with regional staff to help you get up and running and provide training and other support.
Four committed adults is the minimum recommended to start up a group. The staff at head office will let you know if there is anyone else in the area in a similar position with whom you could join forces. If you are struggling to find suitable volunteers it might be an idea to hold a local meeting to raise awareness among adults—apparently attracting enough children is rarely a problem! You could also talk to other parents in the school yard, at swimming lessons, and other places. Don’t restrict yourself just to parents either. I was surprised, but delighted, that a childless friend was extremely keen to get involved. Most volunteers have limited, or no experience working with children and a new group is a learning curve for everyone involved, but with the right people on board it is also a fantastic opportunity for everybody. The Folk encourage a policy of making groups representative of the local community, for example ensuring that in multi-cultural areas groups aren’t all white, and hosting a minimum of two open meetings in the local area should ensure everyone in the community has a chance to become involved from the start. All adult volunteers must be CRB checked and everyone involved must understand and accept the Aims and Principles, which include the rights of the child and a dedication to peace. Once you’ve got your core group of adults, it’s time to take the plunge and get started.
Practical skills required
The Woodcraft Folk suggest that Elfins are often the easiest group to start with, adding Pioneers when the original members turn ten. Meanwhile their younger siblings may require a Woodchips group until they are old enough to join, and before you know it you’ve got the lot! As more children get involved you will probably find more adults taking an interest and you can spread the practical responsibilities a bit further, though there are pros and cons to having a larger group of adults involved. Some adults may not wish to be involved on a regular basis but are more than happy to offer their individual skills for particular tasks, from driving a minibus to teaching a special dance. For adults involved in the weekly running of the group there are various training courses available. These include an introduction to the Folk, a food hygiene course and a 12 hour course on cooperative games.
You will need to find a suitable venue for the group, and these range from schools, community centres, and even rooms above shops. Our Venturers successfully ran from the spare bedroom of my childhood home for nearly a decade, so it’s worth considering all options. Visit venues, chat to head teachers or whoever is responsible for the room and get a feel for the space. Help with the cost of hiring a room is available via funding, a starting grant is available and local co-operative societies are usually keen to assist. Space probably won’t be vastly expensive and it’s what you do there that counts. It is suggested that before the first meeting the adults plan out the next six weeks’ activities, and visit local groups in order to see how things are done. Most groups tend to take on a shape of their own once they are established but it may give some ideas.
One way to launch the group with a bang is to give a taste of what’s in store with a family fun event. This is a chance to collect details of people interested in joining and publicise your first meeting, as well as being a practice run. Then it’s time to take the plunge and hold your first real meeting, one more step on a long, fulfilling, Woodcraft Folk journey that will not only enrich your life, but the lives of the many children who will pass through your group.
woodcraft.org.uk or 0845 458 9535
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