Teaching Earth Skills to Children in the Permaculture Community

(Originally appeared in Permaculture Activist #88, Earth Skills & Nature Connection. Reprinted with permission).

An Interview with Jeff Gottlieb, Outdoor Educator and author of Teaching Primitive Skills to Children: An Instructor’s Manual and Wayne Wiseman, director of The Permaculture Project LLC which offers advanced training in Hunter-Gather Skills and Wild Permaculture, the entire PDC taught through the eyes of a Hunter-Gatherer.
Why should primitive skills be of interest to people involved with permaculture?

Gottlieb – Primitive skills relate to permaculture in several ways: they allow us to compare levels of technology so we can break out of assumptions about methods and materials we think are our only choices for living. They bring our knowledge base closer to Nature. They teach self reliance and DIY so you can solve problems more easily. They fit the permaculture guidelines by being sustainable.

Wiseman – The basis for all of our Permaculture work is observation. As Bill Mollison has stated, protracted observation is key. Like detectives we piece together, incrementally, through our observations in the field, the resources available at the site and delineate the patterns already present. In this way we can then make the least change for the greatest affect. As we design and imprint fresh patterns on the landscape, we proceed to augment what is already there and implement an integral and sound ecology into a property. All in all, the key to the process of Permaculture design lies in rigorous, thorough and ongoing observation. Bill Mollison has said to take one year observing a site: protracted observation. I say one year, every year, every moment, beyond seven generations into infinity. A Permaculture practice must reflect this and the skills to get there must be taught and practiced meticulously.
I often wonder at the two words that Bill Mollison put together many years ago: “protracted observation”. Why these two words in particular? He originally stated that, for one year, we observe a property before we make the changes necessary for the development of what could potentially be a high yielding site, an integrated land base where the built environment, the waste stream, and the agricultural systems that we set in place merge into a circular model that coalesces in to an ecosystem of our own making, where nothing goes to waste, where everything in the landscape stands in functional relationship to everything else.
But why a year of protracted observation? Is it that we purchase a place and leave it untouched for a whole year? What if we need to grow food for our sustenance, or we need to construct shelter for our comfort, and we cannot wait a year? Well, there is a much deeper equation here, and it is not about the ‘year’ per se. What it is about is the “protracted observation”. For how can we, as designers, do anything whatsoever without coming to some understanding of the climate, the landform, the movement of water, the plants and animals, and all the other natural proclivities endemic to a piece of property? How can we utilize the biological intelligence that pervades a place if we have not completely immersed ourselves into that place and allowed it to speak to us, to tell us what “it needs”?
Hunter gatherer skills are all about observation of the immediate environment. It is where we find our sustenance and the materials that we need in order to eat, drink, sleep. As a teacher, I feel that these skills are tantamount to a rigorous assessment and inventory of a piece of land for any designer: climate, landform, water, circulation, vegetation, animals, the built environment, microclimate, soils, it all integrates into our work. It is where we begin.

Why should kids be taught primitive skills by the permaculture community?

Gottlieb – They should be taught to kids so that kids become good problem solvers and thinkers. They get kids outside. They get them to understand their place in human history. They connect them to the sources of our sustenance and support. They encourage gratitude.

Wiseman – Kids are like sponges when roaming the woods, rivers, streams, any natural area. We live in a culture that pays literally no attention to trees, flowers, animals, soil, the sun. Children are raised in a two-dimensional, flat world. Not only do these treks raise their awareness of what exists around them, but the practice of making fire, or a basket, a stone tool, or foraging for the evening’s meal, promotes excellent hand and eye coordination, and is the essence of what it means to start from scratch and create what they need in terms of their basic necessities. This, of course, is what we are attempting to do with our Permaculture work: keep it simple, zero waste, develop a strong and enduring relationship to all life.

What have you learned from kids over the years of your work?

Gottlieb – I learned that kids will find easier simpler ways of doing things than I thought possible. They want to have fun, which sounds simple and obvious, but we adults should have fun doing our daily activities too. They learn best while following their passions and so do us adults. They don’t well tolerate living in ways that don’t suit them and we shouldn’t either.

Wiseman – Kids are kids, energetic, noisy, sometimes out of control, especially when they are with their friends and in groups. But, after a few minutes in the woods, after a discovery of some unique bird, or crawdad, or the odd shape of a stick, something happens. When kids see a friction fire apparatus produce that hot coal for the first time they are awed that this is possible. These basic living skills are basic to everyone. Kids naturally absorb and want to try all of it. And these skills are simple enough that they can accomplish much in a short period of time. This is the first step to their future in topics such as Permaculture. This anchors them in the greater cycles of nature and acts a springboard forward.

What are some tips for people teaching primitive skills to children?

Gottlieb – Tips: start teaching where the learners are. Teach to their interests instead of assuming what they will learn and care about. Carefully craft experiences so that their interests will lead them to the concepts you want them to have. Teach age-appropriate activities they can have success at. Incorporate primitive skills into regular life, such as cooking and eating wild foods at home.

Wiseman – The first step is for the instructor to take the time to get out in the natural world, slow down, observe, identify, begin to understand the layers, textures, shapes, forms, colors, relative sizes, all of what exists in repeating cycles, seemingly forever. We have to find a deep love inside for birds, trees, clouds, stars, etc. and then practice the art of inspiring our students to jump into the mix. The instructor must also feel at home with the all the skills that bring one sustenance in the woods, on the prairies, wherever, even in the middle of NYC. There is no substitute for a blending of theory and hands-on knowledge, something felt deeply in the bones and in our experience.


For more information about Wayne Wiseman’s services visit:

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Jeff Gottlieb
245 Red Dog Lane
Whittier, NC, 28789