Outdoors

Teaching Wilderness Survival To Children

children in the woods featured

“Oh, the places you will go…” I felt just like I was walking through the pages of that Dr. Seuss classic when our prepper training focused on teaching a group of children from our survival tribe orienteering and general “in the woods” skills.

It took us all a little bit of time to adjust to the bright light on a shining sun and the feeling of heat on our faces when seasonal (slightly above seasonal, actually) first appeared. It felt more than a bit like we had been hibernating in a cave for months and just emerge from a long sleep – except the warmth of the cave was constantly interrupted by survival homesteading chores in -5 degrees temperatures for weeks on end – of course.



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The harsh winter that seems to not want to die and give way to spring finally abated, albeit briefly, and gave us 75 degree weather with no rain for a full 48 hours. Going that long above 32 degrees without rain, snow, or ice has not happened since early November.

The men of our tribe got straight to work tilling the garden while we prepper gals engaged in self-reliance training with the kiddos – whose ages ranged from three months to 15.

tractor on the farm

Last year everyone in Ohio worried about bugs in their gardens after one of the warmest winters on record. This year, we hoped with equal vigor that the flood water wood recede and the last frost of “spring” would occur sometime before the Fourth of July. Prepping for the seemingly short-term wrath Mother Nature throws your way without any warning, should be a part of every self-reliant family’s survival plan.

I have been working on an interactive and educational survival wilderness skills program for children as a part of a self-reliance homeschool curriculum that has been an enormous labor of love. The change in weather allowed me the opportunity to try out some of the lessons while furthering introducing and honing the outdoor survival skills of the children in our tribe.

The two days we spent exploring, discovering, and learning in the woods were an enlightening experience for both the adults and the children. Joy is the best was to describe the looks on their cute little faces when they succeeded with a task, won a contest (we are not the everyone gets a trophy type of group, healthy competition is encouraged here!) or simply marveled in what they had unearthed in the pond, creek, dirt, or a hollowed out stump.

children playing in the creek

Clothes got dirty. Feet got wet. And a good time was had by all as even children as young as two learned how to find their way out of the woods, to find animal tracks in the mud, and how to test the depth of a waterway to see if it is safe to cross – among many other vital wilderness skills.

Although I geared out outdoor survival training sessions to suit our particular homesteading retreat, little adaptation was necessary based on either age or location of the exercises because they were designed to be as universal as possible.

How To Teach Wilderness Survival Skills To Children

basic hand -drawn map and compass

Basic Map Reading

Make a simple map that uses landmarks of the area being explored and any waterways, walkways or roads. For older children, create a more detailed topography style map to increase the difficulty and build upon skills already learned.

I made our maps on brown grocery sacks and rolled them up, trying them with a piece of baling twine to secure it into place. The maps were designed so the children could follow the same route to a certain point to foster teamwork and decision making skills.

And adult was posted out of view along various points along the route to ensure the safety of the children and to intercede only if absolutely necessary.

Each child ultimately had to take deviate from the path alone (toddlers and preschoolers had a six or 7 year old partner) to find their buried treasure. Each child has a plastic emergency whistle on a lanyard waiting for them.

The maps then fused each route back together to put the children all back on the same path. Once reunited, the had to work together to find a buried cache that contained their lunch. As soon as they found a group of shovels – metal child shovels, gardening shovels, etc. they knew they had reached their destination and began digging.

Inside the buried cache was also another map that directed them to the location where their drinks and a soft blanket was laid out upon the ground for them to picnic.

auddie walking by herself in the woods

Just look at the expression of pure joy on little Auddie’s face as she walked without being forced to hold a hand and going down the farm road all by herself. I believe in free ranging kids as much as I do free ranging animals. Keeping children confined and constantly monitored and supervised dulls their natural senses and curtails any sense of wonderment new experiences or their imagination might bring. You must train them up in the way you want them to go – independent, capable, responsible, and able to survive on their own because you won’t always be there.

Location Awareness

After lunch in one of my favorite spots on our survival retreat, the children were informed each one had to find their way back up from the rock formation overhang where we had all been sitting to “The Stump” all by themselves.

The stump is the natural photo booth they had all had their pictures taken in each season and just for fun during various hikes. They were all very familiar with the area where they had hiked to picnic, but from the look of shock that registered on their faces, none of them were quite sure about finding their way back up individually and without relying on a map.

Because of the steep terrain and drop offs leading to the stump and the still dead look of winter in the woods, adults were positioned in plain view but offered absolutely no guidance to the children.

Each child was given three minutes to reach the stump if they wanted to garner one of the candy bars that had been placed in a basket at the seat of it they had all failed to notice when walking past it to the picnic spot. Again, the youngest walkers in our group were paired with a slightly older buddy.

child sitting on tree stump

While the children worked on some knot tying skills with a member of our tribe, I pulled each two and older child out one by one and took them on a 4-wheeler ride and hike by the creek in the lower pasture.

While walking the heavily wooded and brushy area with them, I paused to turn and point out how far we had walked from the wheeler until it was completely out of view.

Once inside the deeper woods the child was tasked with finding his or her way back to the creek. I told them to listen for the sound of running water and to notice how the hardness of the ground beneath their feet changed as we walked closer to the creek sounds.

child excited after finding the creek

Check out the excitement and pride 3 and a half year old Colt felt when he found the creek all by himself. Kind of solidly blows the unprepared view of us survivor types raising our kids hunkered down in a bunker and terrifying them with tales of the apocalypse, right?! While tens of thousands of children of unprepared families were sitting inside with a computer game controller in their hand or staring at their Facebook page on a device screen, our little tribe members were learning skills that might save their life and having a memory-making blast doing it.

Each child then looked closely at all the animal prints around the watering hole spot and tried to figure out what had made them, After we discussed their answers, I took a close-up photo of each track to print out later to make a set of animal print flash cards for each child.

When it was time to leave the deep woods and hike back out to the 4-wheeler, I told each child he or she would be the trail leader. A lesson was learned about location awareness during the stump candy bar exercise, but the only treat at the end of this task was a ride and not a hike a half a mile or so uphill to our gathering spot.

Every single child was able to find their way back out of the trail, with them all looking back at me for reassurance and then continuing on without me offering any advice. It took the two year olds longer to find their way, a few wanted to stop and be carried, which did not happen. I hiked the two year olds in on a pretty well laid out path so even though they had to think and pay attention to where they were going, it was not super difficult or filled with briars. Many of the younger children hiked us out of the woods a different way than we came in, but always led in the right direction and came out within five feet of where the 4-wheeler was parked.

Travel Time And Distance

Next we infused some math into our survival training – and it didn’t even hurt…much. Each child was told how far they were going on our nature scavenger hunt. They were then told we were going to ride the trail first on the 4-wheeler going 10 miles per hour and to estimate how long it would take to get there taking terrain and gate opening and closing into consideration.

Next, the children were told to estimate how long it would take to travel the same distance on foot factoring in the terrain, gates, and a walking speed of two miles per hour.

In small groups the children rode the trail on the four wheeler to see if their travel time estimations had been corrected – and then discussed why they were or were not right.

woman and children on ATV

We timed out walk to the end of the route by walking on foot as a group, with the adults bringing up the rear and the leader chosen by the children guiding them to the stopping point. Again, we discussed the travel estimations each child had given.

The younger children all each had a turn at working the livestock gate and worked together to push it open and then closed again. I painted one rung of each fence a different color on both sides to help the youngest tribe members learn their way around the survival retreat, to be able to easily describe where they are if separated, and to use as color-coded meeting spaces during trainings.

After a snack break consisting of healthy treats from our greenhouse and some trail mix the children helped make, we started our way back and the nature scavenger hunt began.

Each child was given a paper sack that had a printout of what they were to find. The older children were honing their foraging and medicinal bark identification and proper removal skills while the young kids worked together to find specific leaves on the ground, growing plants, and “wild animals” in their natural habitat.

child tasting wild edibles

Each child was given one wild edible to find and then taste during the scavenger hunt. At the end of the hunt we made a little salad with a wild edible from each child’s bag to have with the dinner they helped cook over an open fire. The older children used fire starters we made together to get a flame going.

While the children were snacking I carefully placed stuffed animals that represented critters native to our environment along the path for each child to find, You could also do this with paper printouts of the animals. I also put one animal that did not belong in our woods along the route to see if they could find it. They had a mystery box on their scavenger hunt sheet to check off for one item that did not belong, but it did not say or have a photo of the stuffed monkey I had dangling from a low branch.

children finding maple tree leaves

Colt and Auddie found the maple leaves that were on their scavenger hunt list. The children also learned the “leaves of three let it be” rule so they could easily identify poison ivy.

Traps And Tracking

One of our tribe members who is a trapper, did a little demonstration for all the children showing them how the traps work, teaching them how important it is to be watchful for them in the woods so they do not step into one, and what type of animals each is designed to catch.

animal trap

Then we had water purification lesson after making DIY charcoal filters with a water bottle. The children got water from both the creek and the pond to see which one would filter clearer.

Since we were already muddy and dirty messes by this point, all of the kids took off their shoes and made their own prints around the bank of the pond. They led their parents/grandparents to the human tracks makeshift exhibit to see if they could guess which pairs of little (to not so little) feet belonged to them.

We took measurements of the children’s footprints and compared them to the dimensions of the animal tracks we had also measured earlier in the day – with each child guessing which were going to be larger, smaller, or about the same.

children playing in muddy creek

Throughout the day we had discussed how to use the sun to estimate time and direction. As dusk rolled around we took a group hike to explore shadows, how the woods change in sight and sound at night – it was barely dusk when we started out and we guided ourselves back with flashlights. A couple of the teenagers had night visions goggles they wanted to try out, which added even a little more fun and learning to the final adventure of the evening.

Not a single time did any of the tired, dirty, hot, and sometimes hungry children want to stop participating in any of the survival challenges and learning activities. Even the teenagers survived spending the bulk of 48 straight hours without the internet or their cell phones.

Before the children who do not live on the survival homesteading retreat left, each was gifted a “retreat explorer’s pouch” with a water bottle holder that I had sewn from scrap materials during the chilly and rainy evenings I was forced to spend inside during the winter from hell. Inside each bag were their animal tracks flashcards, some photos snapped during our training, along with some fun learning worksheets related to the skills we had been learning.



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Tara Dodrill

About Tara Dodrill

Tara Dodrill is a homesteading and survival journalist and author. She lives on a small ranch with her family in Appalachia. She has been both a host and frequent guest on preparedness radio shows. In addition to the publication of her first book, 'Power Grid Down: How to Prepare, Survive, and Thrive after the Lights go Out', Dodrill also travels to offer prepping tips and hands-on training and survival camps and expos.
View all posts by Tara Dodrill →

4 thoughts on “Teaching Wilderness Survival To Children

  1. What an absolutely fantastic way to introduce children to the outdoors! Will be sharing the article with family and friends. We do similar things whenever we have the grandchildren and are building a shelter for livestock or seeding pastures or planting a garden bed. We explain why we are doing the project and they ask questions about the process, We always try to find a native edible plant to introduce, new animal track or birdsong to learn. I kove your creative ways to help the children of all ages learn basic skills!

  2. Angelcrest,
    Thank you for your kind words. It sure sounds like you too do a fabulous job of introducing the wild world and self-reliance skills to the young ones in your life!

  3. Tara, this was absolutely awesome, thank you for sharing! You have given me some ideas to incorporate the next time we go camping with the GS!

  4. Is this even legal that you are teaching kids this stuff?

    Just wait until the local school district hears about all this. You are teaching thinking skills that go totally contrary to mainstream thinking. Since when is a child allowed to free think, and act within the world while applying common sense logic to life and survival?

    Be careful! You are now on the NWO Radar..

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