Activities,  Rewilding our children

Elder beads

The elder tree is often over looked in the forest. It is small, and shabby looking, and may even be believed to be dead or dying from the look of its dry and brittle branches. However, the elder is really a most wonderful tree due to its abundance of uses. For information on how to identify elder check out my post here.

It bears delicious fruit and flowers through the spring and summer months, but it’s the branches we are interested in for this craft.

The branches of an elder are reasonably brittle and this is due to the soft pithy center of the wood. This soft center makes it an excellent wood for making crafts. Elder is often used during forest school activities due to its adaptability. Today’s activity – Elder Beads.

Elder beads

Collecting elder

Today I collected some elder from the forest school site that I work at to make some elder beads. Differing to foraging laws, wood is not something that can be legally taken from a forest, you need to gain land owners permission if you are going to cut branches to take home. Luckily, elder is not a wood that most land owners will want, so it is very likely they will be happy for you to take a branch or two.

If the wood is already fallen, you can legally take a few bits. The elder branches we need for this craft only need to be a 2-3cm thick so it is very likely that you will find this fallen wood and be within the law to take a few bits home in your rucksack.


The wood only needs to be between 2-3cm thick, so this can very easily be chopped using a small pair of loppers. You could also use a hand saw or a Laplander if you don’t have access to loppers.

You will then need a whittling knife. This could be a smaller blade as shown in the picture or a larger bushcraft/ sheath knife, depending on the detail of design you plan to do.

A tent peg or other object of similar form is required to push the inner pith out of the wood to create the hole in the pith.

This is an activity which is accessible to children of a range of ages. For young children, using loppers and then a potato peeler in place of a whittling knife allows them have more independence when completing this activity.

Making the beads

Using the loppers cut your piece of elder into small pieces – the size you desire your beads to be. I normally cut them around 3-4cm long. This leaves a little space for whittling a pattern or design into the beads.

Then using your whittling knife, I use a mora, you can either remove the bark or carve a design into the bark.

If you plan to remove the bark of your beads, I would suggest doing this prior to chopping it up into bead sized pieces. It is much easy to handle a larger piece of wood than the smaller ones.

If doing this activity with children, remind them of the safety when whittling.

Staying safe

The safe whittling procedures for any age is as follows:

  • Whittle in a sat down, sturdy position
  • Whittle down and away from their body.
  • Hold the wood on one side of the legs and not between the legs. The main atrial vein runs along the upper thigh. This is not a vein that you or your children want to be cutting.
  • Ensure the knife is sharp. A sharp knife is a safe knife.
  • Ensure the safety sheath is returned to the knife in the lock position when the knife is not in use
  • Make sure no one else is close to you when you are whittling. The use of a ‘blood bubble’ perimeter is used which signifies that no one should come within a radius of your arm + the knife whilst the knife is being use.
  • A cut proof glove should be worn on the helping hand (the hand not holding the knife). I would recommend this for both adults and children, but especially children as the beads are small and a little fiddly which can lead to slips and cuts if not following the correct procedures.

You can whittle any sort of designs or shapes into the beads. I tend to whittle down the edges of the beads to make them a rounder shape, but you can also add patterns or make the beads themselves into different shapes and sizes. There is so much scope for creativity here!

Using the beads

The beads can then be used in any form you desire. I have provided a few ideas below.

Make into a bead bracelet

Simply thread them onto a piece of string, wool or elastic to make a very natural looking piece of jewellery.

Use them in a weaving or macrame project

I have made a small macramé keyring using a single elder bead. It is a very simple yet effective design that can be made in around 10 minutes.

Incorporate the bead into a project using natural cordage

I have made some natural cordage using strips of willow bark. Using the mora knife I removed the bark of a small willow shoot, taking care to not allow the willow to split or break into smaller pieces.

You can then use the bark like string or cord. I have again made a macrame key ring using the cordage.

This is a great activity to do with kids as it helps them to connect with plants and trees around them, allowing them to understand how natural things can be used in ways they may never have thought of. Providing this connection is so important for a child’s development.

I hope you have as much fun making and experimenting with these beads as I did.

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