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How to Run a Campfire

This is a session I ran at The Hills Region Conference, 6th August 1994, followed by a campfire. I hope it is useful.

Campfire Programme

There are three parts to a campfire, each of which has its own role:

  • beginning
  • middle
  • end

The programme is planned so that the items coincide with the state of the fire, i.e. when the fire has just been lit, the people are just warming up. When the fire is at its height, the people are moving around and singing loud songs. As the fire dies down, the songs become slower and quieter. About 24-25 items fill one hour.

This is the most important part of the campfire. It sets the tone. If you cannot gain interest and control now, you might as well cancel the campfire. Therefore, it is important that the first songs you sing are ones that everyone knows, or can pick up easily. Try some rounds, echo songs, action songs. Suitable ones are “Fire's Burning”, “Kookaburra”, “Oh How Lovely is the Evening”, “The Bear”, “My Ship Sailed From China”.

The middle of the programme should be the climax of the campfire. Here is where you can include all the rowdy songs and parodies that the girls love. You can play games and do skits here as well. Here is also where you probably need to give them some items that require them to stand up and move around. Suitable items are “Organised Chaos”, “Merry-Go-Round”, “Three Craggy Vultures”, “Animal Orchestra”, “Three Blind Mice”.

The last third of the campfire should have quieter songs and items. It is the time when you need to calm the girls down, so that they are ready to go to bed. Choose slower and quieter songs, or tell a story. Try a yarn from “Scouting for Boys”. Suitable items are “Zum Gali Gali”, “Kumbiah”, “Heidi”, “Peace I ask of thee, 0 river”. The final items are usually vespers or something similar. Try “Canadian Vespers”, “On My Honour”, “Ranger Song”. Campfires usually end with “Taps”.

Types of items

A campfire programme does not have to consist completely of songs. There are many other things you can do. Here are some of them:

  • Songs
  • Rounds
  • Singing Games
  • Games
  • Skits
  • Stories/yarns
  • Coordination tests
  • Action songs
  • Campfire magic
  • Standing songs
  • Yells
  • Items using musical instruments

Keeping control

  • PLAN AND WRITE DOWN YOUR PROGRAMME. Ask for requests BEFORE the campfire starts, not during it.
  • Introduce the campfire when you have total attention. Don't start until everyone is quiet and looking at you.
  • Recruit other people (adults, patrol leaders) to keep control in their own area.
  • Start with a formal opening and fire lighting.
  • Announce rules for the use of torches at the beginning of the campfire.
  • Don't have gaps between items - launch directly into the next one when the previous one is finished. Don't allow the participants to get restless waiting for the next item, or you will start to lose control.
  • Don't sing too slowly.
  • The use of songbooks tends to make it messy and interrupts the flow of the programme. Use songs that most people know, or are easy to teach so that they don't need the books.
  • Explain clearly what you want participants to do.
  • Recruit other people to lead items (this also gives you a break).
  • CONDUCT THE SONGS. This is important to make sure that everyone is singing together. It is especially important when singing in rounds.

Rules of a campfire

  • Torches, if brought, may only be used pointing down - not across the circle.
  • Camp blankets should be pure wool.
  • People wearing camp blankets must be careful when near the fire.
  • A bucket of water must be kept nearby in case of sparks.
  • The leader's version is the one used.

The fire itself

  • It is usually considered bad form to have to add more wood on the fire during the programme. Build the fire larger than you think you need. However, it pays to have extra wood close by, just in case.
  • It is essential that the fire starts immediately. A little insurance in the form of Little Lucifers or something similar is advisable. Think of it as a performance: you don't expect to go to the Opera House to see a famous entertainer only to wait for the show to start because the lighting or sound isn't working, do you?
  • Safety is paramount. Build the fire in a cleared area. Keep water nearby. Check local fire restrictions.
  • Make sure the fire is completely out and cold before leaving it. I usually give the honour of throwing water on the fire at the end to the people who lit it, or the patrol leaders while everyone else gets ready for bed.
  • Remove the ashes/wood and fill the fireplace in before leaving the site (according to the requirements of the site).

Final comments

The campfire program should follow the height of the flames. As the flames are starting, use items that build an atmosphere and help get everyone in the mood. At the height of the flames, have everyone up on their feet, stomping, dancing, yelling, making noise. As the flames start to die down, use slower, softer items, leading towards the quiet end of the program. Usually a campfire is held just before bedtime at camp, and you want the campers in the mood to sleep.

It is difficult to show this as a vertical diagram on a web site, so here it is in horizontal form:

Light the fire
Formal opening
Well known songs
Songs with hand actions
Divide into parts to sing rounds
Get them on their feet and moving
Climax of programme - lots of noise and movement
Play some rowdy games
Tell a story or yam
"Religious" songs
Slower songs

Enjoy your campfires!