What are Scouting Skills?
Can you throw some things in a pack, step off the road into the woods and live comfortably for a few days without getting lost? Can you build a fire, lash a tripod together, set up a shelter, cook your food, stay warm and dry and leave no trace of your presence when you leave? If the answer is yes then you possess what I would call some basic ‘Scouting Skills’.
Where did the skills come from?
Early in the last century author, illustrator and Naturalist Ernest Thompson-Seton gathered his knowledge of the wilds into a book called The Birch-Bark Roll as a guide for boys wishing to become part of his Woodcraft Indians. Robert Baden-Powell , inspired in part by Seaton’s work, included the skills of woodcraft in Scouting For Boys – the book that would spread like wildfire around the world and led to the worldwide Scouting Movement.
Why use this Woodcraft stuff anyway?
Scouting skills are separate from everyday life. They are, in fact, at odds with everyday life. They require us to push ourselves physically and mentally beyond our normal sphere of comfort.
Scouting skills connect us to our human origins. It’s generally agreed that the first basic elements of human culture arose shortly after we learned to build fires (about four hundred thousand years ago). When Scouts leave their homes and begin learning their way through how to work together in the woods something happens that is not quantifiable or particularly easy to explain, but anyone who has gathered around a campfire with the night at their backs knows what I mean.
Why are Scouting Skills still important?
Scouting skills may be practical useful things to know but let’s agree that they have little relevance to modern life, and that’s one of the most important things about them. If you’ll think about it Scouting skills had about as much relevance to ‘modern life’ of a century ago as they do today.
To become skilled at Scouting we have to turn our backs on the technological marvels upon which we have all come to depend, return to the dawn of civilization, stand in a forest clearing, and start all over again.
Anyone can pick up a basketball or football, play the game, and even become a decent player. But excellence in sports requires aptitude and physical ability that not all of us possess or can develop. The same thing is true of academics, we can rise to a certain point but will probably not surpass our natural aptitude for the subject.
Unlike the natural aptitudes required to advance in sports or academics any Scout can gain and master Scouting skills with dedication and practice. That ‘level playing field’ is a key reason we need to emphasize and promote Scouting skills
If we carry the technologies and attitudes of everyday life into Scouting it ceases to be something special, it ceases to be an alternative to the artificiality of everyday life.
Practicing and mastering Scouting skills creates a special community with a distinct code of conduct that re-orders the priorities of the everyday world. Practicing Scouting skills requires an unusual combination of self-reliance and cooperation, a level of awareness of one’s self, of others, and of the natural world no other endeavor replicates.
How do we get this right?
If we isolate Scouting skills from one another or from the environment where they are practiced we separate them from the immediacy of their practical application and relevance.
Why learn to tie a taut line hitch or a sheet bend? There may be a handful of practical uses for them in everyday life, but they are integral to setting up a rainfly.
Why learn all the skills of building, maintaining and cooking over a campfire. Just to sign a book and earn a badge?
Should we learn by sitting down and attentively following a PowerPoint presentation on Tenderfoot rank requirements?
Our challenge as Scouters is to take the Scouting skills that are fragmented into the words of separate, numbered requirements and put them in the context of experiences that constitute the process of Scouting. It’s a tall order.
The first step is understanding the importance and central role of Scouting Skills to the Scouting process, of not fragmenting them into disjointed bits of information.
Once we understand this we’ll be less likely to get distracted by indicators (our advancement reports for example) and apply ourselves to what creates the indicators.
Finally, aptitude at Scout skills is not as important as the effort required to learn and master them. That effort, not a certain level of excellence, is our aim. Scouts will be all the more eager to extend the effort when we concentrate on the interconnection and relevance of Scouting skills, with the reasons we practice them in the first place.