Risk Assessing the Wild Man of the Woods

Published by Becky Guest on

Photograph courtesy of Spencer Means

About this time last year, the Woodcraft Folk went on camp again, for the first time since lockdown, and the leaders had to do a risk assessment for the Wild Man of the Woods game. This is a kind of wide game, like Ackky Ackky One-Two-Three, where one of the leaders becomes a wild man, and a few of the older children help him to hunt down the smaller ones as they hide in the woods.

We all remember the thrill of games of tig, and in wide games, the excitement of the physical chase is supplemented by strategic use of the landscape itself – by the ability to hide, to use barriers, and to coordinate attacks on the base. For many Western children the chance to move freely round a bigger area, out of sight of their responsible adults, is an increasingly rare pleasure – the age of children’s first walk to school alone has risen year after year so that the average is now 11.

Wild Man of the Woods, however, does something else as well. The wild man himself is a terrifying figure – deliberately so. When I took on the role, I would carry a stick, paint myself green, and bellow threats at the top of my voice “I’m the wildman of the woods, and I’ve just caught Timothy Winters, and now I’m coming for YOU!!!”.

We are all, children and adults alike, scared of the wild man of the woods. Partly this fear comes from the stories our culture tells about ‘stranger danger’ (though we know that children are far more at risk of harm from friends and family members inside the home), partly it comes from our deep cultural memories of wolves, bears and bandits in the times before central heating and e-scooters, and partly it comes from our careful boundary keeping of our own souls.

The anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss writes about the ways that human thinking divides the world into binary oppositions – ‘the raw and the cooked’ in his memorable phrase: nature and culture, man and beast, wild and civilised. The wild man of the woods undermines these oppositions and wherever we see him –  In Red Riding Hood’s wolf, in Mark Rylance’s Rooster Byron, in the English folk figure of the Wodwo, in the Green Man carved in the stone of an ancient church, in Scotland’s Burry man, even in King Kong – we are reminded that these boundaries, between inside and outside, between us and them, aren’t as real as we like to think. Painting myself green and chasing children around the woods screaming my head off doesn’t fit comfortably with my usual, respectable public image as a senior lecturer in Working with Children, Young People and Families. However, it is important to sit with this discomfort – not to try to live in only one half of the world.

On the risk assessment form, the dangers of the game are obvious. Stinging nettles and brambles are an inevitability, abject terror is part of the fun, sprained ankles are a real possibility for the children, and a heart attack always seems on the cards for me. What doesn’t appear on any risk assessment form are the dangers of not playing the game. There’s good evidence that contact with nature is a powerful tool in the fight against a range of mental health difficulties and that giving children the independence to take risks boosts their self-esteem and confidence in moving through the world. With a mental health crisis facing our children and young people, we’d be fools to refuse these tools. With a climate crisis threatening to kill hundreds of millions and destroy our civilisation, we’d be suicidal to turn our back on the woods now.

The older woodcraft children speak fondly of Wild Man of the Woods as the highlight of their camps – a real adventure to treasure, to remember round the fireplace when the nights are dark; the best fun of all. In the preface to his classic ‘Coraline’ (which is about the horrors that can catch us at home) Neil Gaiman writes that “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten” and this is the real lesson of the horror stories that soak our culture, and of the Wild Man of the Woods Game. We’re all scared of the wild man, and we’re all scared of what happens to children in the woods, but what Gaiman’s quote tells us is that we can go down into the woods today, in disguise or not, and that we can come back out again, into the light and the human world, still ourselves, but just a little braver, a little wilder and, perhaps, a little more whole.

In the WCYPF degree, we (rightly) pay a lot of attention to questions of safeguarding, and to questions about the difficulties and inequalities facing children in the UK and around the world. The last time we revalidated the degree, we reflected on this, and realised that we were missing out a lot of the things which got several of us into working in the field in the first place – the interest, amusement and sheer fun which working with children offers. To fix that lack, we wrote a new module – Working Creatively with Children, Young People and Families – which ran for the first time this year, and which looks more deeply into some of the issues which the Wild Man game raises. Hopefully it will help students build the tools to help the children and young people they work with to have fun as they find their own way through their own wild woods – wherever they are.