There are some general preparations we can make, as adults, to ensure that our wilderness adventures will be safe and fun. If we are confident ourselves, the kids we bring with us into the wild will be much more confident also, and then we're all likely to get more out of the experience. Most importantly, although I'm going to give some cautionary notes, don't let these things scare you; just get used to looking for them. There are far more hazards in the city, but because most of us are accustomed to these hazards, and automatically keep an eye out for them, they don't pose much of a threat. I promise you that with enough time spent in the wilderness, a similar sense of confidence and ease will develop.
Get to know the plants: Take a camera or a notebook or whatever you need to help yourself engage with what you encounter, and get to know the opportunities and hazards in your area. I recommend a high-quality, photo-rich plant identification book, so that you can familiarize yourself with what you'll find, locally. Spend some time every day identifying plants, until you feel confident. If you discover dangerous plants in your area, don't avoid them; learn about them so you can pass this knowledge onto the kids. It's always better to be informed than sheltered. You never know where or when these plants will be found again.
Get to know the terrain: Try clambering through some rough areas so you get a feel for what you are personally able to tackle, and what the terrain is like, in general. Try out some of the wilderness activities listed below! Keep hazards in mind, so that you become more attuned to them in general. This skill will keep you safer, but more importantly keep your mind at ease, when you're out with your children or class. Some general hazards to watch for:
- Look up for things that can fall (rotten or dead trees, branches broken off but hung up overhead, large dangerous cones, wasp nests, overhanging loose rocks, etc.)
- Look down for ankle-breakers and sink-holes (quick-sand, deep holes that may be hidden by ferns, wasp nests and biting ant hills, deep mud, sharp garbage or barnacles, etc.)
- If it's hot, bring sunscreen, water, and plan to be in the shade. Sunhats are essential for programs I run in hot weather.
- If it's cold, keep active, and keep dry. Even with mittens, hands tend to get cold, especially when building things, so some sort of hand-warmers are a great idea. (Learn how to make reusable hand-warmers here.)
- If it's cold and wet, don't plan to be out all day, and dress appropriately. If there is any water available (rain, creek, puddles, mud, ocean, etc.) kids will get wet. So waterproof rain gear and good tall boots are important to have over top of warm garments, mittens and hats. Fleece or sheep's wool is best because it dries faster than cotton.
- If it's wet but temperatures are mild, kids can still get quite cold, as the the damp saps the heat out of their bodies. Bring rain gear and a change of clothes.
- Let kids regulate their own temperature. Make sure they have warm/dry clothes with them, but allow them to wear what they feel is best. They will usually reach for warmth when they need it, and learn from mistakes when they get cold. Keeping kids bundled when they resist can also be a hazard, since overheating is also a problem (and for some kids happens quickly when they're active), sweat eventually also becomes cold, and mostly they just feel disrespected and miserable.
Things to Do:
Water Play: If you can get to water (or if you can't escape it), use it! It's not only a fabulous resource for learning about physics (I'm not suggesting formal lessons; just freely playing with flow and permeability is highly educational), but is also a wonderful way to bring people together. Maybe you all get together with a common goal of diverting a creek, or of creating a little pond. Maybe one person is delivering water for another's sand or mud-construction. Maybe the rain just soaked everyone and now you're huddled in a grotto eating lunch. Or maybe you're all just jumping and rolling in a flooded meadow. Whatever it is, take precautions (watch for strong current in creeks or signs of kids becoming too cold), and have fun!! Once you get used to the idea of being wet, you can play and explore with abandon.
Climbing Trees: A tree can be a wonderful vantage point, as well as a unique ecosystem to explore. It also provides a great opportunity for muscle and skill development. So educate yourself about safe climbing practice. Good climbing trees are reasonably open near the trunk (not too bushy), while having enough branches to easily climb. They are flexible, strong, healthy trees, with branches generally at least as big around as your upper arm. Always test branches before putting weight on them; always make sure you're hanging on in multiple places, so that if you begin to fall, you'll still be holding onto something. Always keep your weight near the tree's trunk. And don't panic. In our area (the Pacific Northwest), some excellent climbing trees are young healthy cedar, Douglas fir, and alder. Some brittle trees to avoid climbing are maple, hemlock, and anything dead or dying.
Generally, I think it's important for kids to get themselves into trees. If I have to help them up, they haven't gained the confidence to climb safely, or to come back down safely. So I may give advice about technique or suggest good-looking foot-holds or climbing-routes, but I don't lift. And yes, I do also climb trees myself, while making sure that when I'm with young kids, I can still easily and quickly get to them if needed.
Digging: Using hands, sticks, flat rocks, or even shovels, digging can be a fabulous activity. There are wonderful creative and explorative opportunities in the holes excavated, the pile of dirt created, and whatever may be found in the dirt, while digging. Digging might be towards a specific goal, like harvesting clay, creating a sand-castle, or play-mining, but it might just be for the joy of discovery. Some dangers around digging are harming the roots of trees, or creating instability in a slope. Keep these things in mind, but otherwise have fun!
Building: Build whatever your imagination can dream up, using whatever materials are available (without killing plants or disturbing too much habitat). Sticks and branches are familiar materials for forts, walls, and bridges, but try some other things too: Mobiles (using rope, string, or vines), sculptures (sticks lend themselves very well to making forest fairies or tall human-like sculptures, and improvised handmade tools and musical instruments. Rocks can be wonderful for building dams, rock-houses, rock-stacks, and inuksiuk. They can be used to line fire pits for real fires or play, to support structures, and to divert water-flow. Both sticks and rocks can be used in conjunction with all manner of mud, dirt, moss, and clay to create sturdy structures. One word of advice for the well-being of the environment you're using: It's important not to take more than can quickly regenerate. Pulling out lots of ferns, branches, or moss can be tempting, especially when they seem abundant, but too much taken causes serious harm to the environment. For example, too much moss removed from the trunk of a tree or the forest floor will prevent water retention in that area and may cause the tree to weaken or die. Pay attention to the ecosystem you're working in, and respect it.
Pretend Play: Any imaginative game you can play in the house can be easily moved to the wild. You don't need to bring any supplies; costumes can be made of wilderness materials (leaves, grass, bark from dead trees, and face-paint of crushed grass, mud or clay), and props and tools will similarly be improvised. Take any inspiration and see how you can make it work in the wild. Alternatively, let the wilderness itself inspire you! Look around and imagine something fantastic. A couple of weeks ago one of the boys in the group I was leading found a big crumbling rotten stump, spilling its orange and brown powdery remains onto the forest floor. Instantly it seemed to him like the mother-load of cheese, and he began "mining" for cheese. Soon he was delivering all sorts of different types of "cheese" to his friend, who opened a "restaurant", serving amazing-sounding meals (mostly of cheeses) upon fancy bark-plates. This particular pretend play lasted for two afternoons, and we are all now a little more knowledgeable about cheeses, restaurant entrepreneurship, and decomposing forest materials.
Music and Drama: Whether you start a random beat-box on an echo-ey mountainside, a drum-circle around a hollow-log, a puppet-show with leaf-and-twig people, or theatre sports in a sunny glade, the wilderness is your stage. Take advantage of the wide open spaces you find to get loud and exuberant. Sometimes I also use performance as a way to bring divergent groups together, to bridge social difficulties, or to refocus when kids are getting tired. Have a few great stories in mind for moments like these, or allow the wilderness to inspire a new story. Some of the older groups I've worked with took a whole week or season to create a play and movie entirely in the wild, even sometimes bringing a projector, multiple extension cords, and a large flat sheet (screen) into the woods for a film-showing. Anything you can do inside can be approximated in the wild, usually with great discoveries made in the process.
Thanks for reading through this article! You now have some ideas for kids to do in the wilderness. But remember these are ideas for YOU. No child is going to be naturally engaged with something new that their parent or teacher is clearly not engaged with. I can't tell you how many times I've taken groups of people out in the wilderness and seen the kids look up at their parents or teachers, often woefully under-dressed, standing around on their phones or assuming an aloof stance at the edge of the play area. Don't be that grown-up. Tell yourself to let go of your adult inhibitions.
You're going to get dirty. You're going to get wet and tired, with splinters in your hands and tears in your eyes. You are going to haul your grown-up body to places it hasn't been in years, and lie it down on the ground. You'll go home with twigs in your hair and mud or moss or sand in places you never imagined. Take pride, because then you will be an accomplished, trustworthy mentor and explorer.